What to know about Russia’s plans to stage referendums in Ukraine

Moscow-backed officials in occupied parts of Ukraine announced plans this week to hold “referendums” from Friday to Tuesday, on the prospect of joining Russia. The moves indicated an escalation in Russia’s apparent plans to annex swaths of Ukraine.

The upcoming votes, which will not be free and fair, and would be illegal under Ukrainian and international law, would lay the groundwork for Russia to formally absorb Ukrainian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced support for the staged votes and on Wednesday declared a partial military mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists. The announcements signal a new willingness from Putin to escalate the seven-month war, after losing significant ground to Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Ukraine’s northeast.

Western officials have panned them as a sham. In an address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, President Biden accused Russia of “extremely significant” violations of the UN charter. And analysts warn that annexing the territories could enable Moscow to label Ukrainian attacks on those regions as attacks on Russia itself, raising the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Here’s what we know about Russia’s annexation plans and their implications for Ukraine and its allies.

Russia moves towards annexing Ukraine regions in a major escalation

What do we know about Russia’s plans to stage referendums in Ukrainian regions?

In near-synchronized announcements, officials in the self-declared “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine and in the occupied region of Kherson in the south said Tuesday they would hold “referendums” from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27 on joining Russia. A staged vote is also to be held on the same dates in parts of Zaporizhzhia controlled by Russian forces — including Enerhodar, where Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant is located.


Held area

by Russia-

backed

separatists

before

Feb. 2022

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Control areas as of Sept. 21

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Held area

by Russia-

backed

separatists

before

Feb. 2022

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Control areas as of Sept. 21

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Held area

by Russia-

backed

separatists

before

Feb. 2022

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Control areas as of Sept. 21

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

Altogether, the Russia-occupied areas set to hold staged votes this month make up nearly 15 percent of Ukraine’s total territory, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Russia’s occupation authorities have said for months that they would hold such votes. But plans accelerated after Ukraine’s military victories this month. Separatist officials in eastern Ukraine pleaded Monday for urgent measures that would allow Moscow to immediately annex the territories.

Moscow recognized the separatist enclaves as independent before the invasion in February, and Russian-backed authorities have already taken administrative measures — including switching to the Russian ruble and distributing Russian passports — to bring residents of occupied Ukraine closer to Russia. Annexation would formalize Moscow’s control.

The United States warned in July that Russia was taking steps towards annexing parts of Ukraine, and that Moscow’s plan would likely include calling “sham” votes.

“Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook,” White House spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing.

That playbook was honed in Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014. The Black Sea peninsula had been part of independent Ukraine for more than two decades.

It’s unclear how exactly the staged voting would work. Denis Pushilin, the pro-Moscow leader of Donetsk, told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that electoral officials would go door to door, and people would also be able to vote in designated “public spaces.” On the last day, residents will be able to vote at polling booths.

The outcome, though, is preordained. If the staged referendum in Crimea is any indication, voting will take place under armed guard or pressure from pro-Russian officials, without credible international observers. The entire process will be under the control of the Russian government and occupying forces. The official result in Crimea in 2014: 97 percent of voters allegedly backed joining Russia.

What is Moscow’s strategy?

The speedy mobilization of Russian-backed officials around annexation comes after Ukrainian counteroffensives reclaimed large swaths of territory in northeastern Ukraine that Russian forces had seized early in the war.

The “referendum” plans unveiled this week appear to mark a “new phase of the war,” Natalia Savelyeva, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said. “They’re signs that the Russian regime doesn’t feel very comfortable.”

Hard-liners in Russia have demanded a tougher approach to the war, and they cheered calls this week for annexation.

Russia’s military control over the regions it has occupied is shaky, and the sham referendums are seen as a political tool to accomplish the military aim of securing Moscow’s hold.

The idea is to create the pretext of popular support to justify further military action, Savelyeva said. For Putin and his supporters, the appearance of having legal authority to make decisions remains important.

Some analysts raised the alarm that the planned referendums signaled that Putin was willing to pursue an escalatory path.

Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst with R.Politik political consultancy, said in a Telegram post that the imminent votes constituted “preparation for a full-scale war,” and annexation, “an unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West: Either Ukraine retreats or nuclear war.”

In a not-so-veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Putin threatened Wednesday to “use all the means at our disposal” to protect Russian territory, as he defines it. “This is not a bluff,” he said.

How have Ukraine and allies reacted?

Ukraine and Western countries have not recognized the annexation of Crimea, and they do not intend to recognize any absorption of other illegally annexed regions into Russia either.

“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

The country’s NATO allies, meanwhile, blasted Russia’s apparent annexation and mobilization plans as escalator.

“The United States will never recognize Russia’s claims to allegedly annexed territory,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday. US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink called the announced measures “signs of weakness.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg denounced the planned referendums as illegitimate and called for increased support for Ukraine. The European Union threatened consequences for Russia.

The Kremlin’s moves coincide with the convergence of world leaders for the annual UN General Assembly general debate in New York. At its opening session Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said Russia “must see that it cannot impose its will militarily,” even if there are “pretend referendums in territories that have been bombed and continue to be occupied.” Biden decried Russia’s moves Wednesday.

It remains to be seen what additional support — military or otherwise — countries might offer to Ukraine. National security officials in the Biden administration indicated last month that the United States would continue to back the Ukrainian military if it tried to retake territory illegally annexed by Russia.

Biden, meanwhile, warned Putin over the weekend not to use a nuclear weapon. “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” he said on the CBS news show “60 minutes.” “It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

The referendums are not likely to slow Ukraine’s military agenda. “There are powerful incentives for Ukraine to continue to attack this territory,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. “The Russian military is at its weakest point right now.”

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, Karoun Demirjian in Washington, Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the US can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive videos.

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