Russia had already announced its intention in the spring and is now moving forward with plans to annex the territories it has occupied in southern and eastern Ukraine at an accelerated pace. Simultaneous votes in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions are planned from September 23 to 27. In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Moscow recognize the results.
As with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia makes a point of not being involved. It was local Ukrainian politicians, supported by the Russian army, who announced the so-called ‘referendums’. As in the case of Crimea eight years ago, the vote has been brought forward from a previously proposed date – that of November 4. Regional referenda are prohibited in Ukraine. As in Crimea, there will be no independent election observation.
President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech on Russian television on Wednesday
‘Yes or no’
However, that’s as far as the similarities go – there are many more differences.
Donetsk and Luhansk are separatist republics that have been effectively under Russian control since 2014. Vladimir Putin recognized them as independent states shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
The regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia, on the other hand, were almost wholly or partially occupied by Russia only after the invasion began. Fighting continues to this day in all four regions. A referendum was also planned in the areas east of Kharkov, which had been occupied until a few days ago. The successful Ukrainian counter-offensive seems to have destroyed that idea.
Russian media report that there will be regional differences. In Donetsk and Luhansk, the vote will contain a single question, which must be answered with “yes” or “no” on whether or not to join the Russian Federation.
In Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, three questions will be asked, but only one “yes” or “no” answer is possible: “Are you for secession from Ukraine, establishing an independent country and joining the Russian Federation?”
Voting will also take place in Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled since 2014. However, the majority of Ukrainian refugees – several million – have fled to Kiev-controlled regions and abroad.
There will be no electronic voting. Mobile election teams escorted by police are scheduled to make home visits in the Zaporizhzhya region, Russia-appointed head of government Yevgeny Balitsky told Russian state broadcaster Rossiya 24 on Tuesday.
Once the annexation is formalized, it is planned that fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk will be able to join the Russian army. But Moscow plans to recruit volunteers in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya. The annexation of the new territories would allow Russia to “use all the forces of self-defense,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel on Tuesday. Many observers interpreted that as a threat to use nuclear weapons. However, a Ukrainian attack on a Russian military airport in the Russian-annexed area of Crimea last month did not elicit an immediate Russian response.
Russia suffers significant losses in Ukraine
Russia’s original plan to hold an orderly vote has been scrapped, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political scientist. He told TBEN that a vote taking place “during a war in which nearly half the population has fled” could not be taken seriously.
2019 survey in Donbas: no majority for annexation
There is no reliable data on the current mood in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the Berlin Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS), less than one in two, or about 45%, of residents of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were in favor of annexation to Russia. At the time, 27% were in favor of autonomous status – and 54% of respondents in the two regions were in favor of returning to Ukraine.
This article was originally written in German.