Four Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine have said they are planning to hold “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation in a series of coordinated announcements that could indicate the Kremlin has made a decision to formally annex the territories.
Moscow may be betting that a formal annexation would help halt Russian territorial losses, after a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive that has reclaimed large portions of territory in the Kharkiv region.
But Ukraine and the west have indicated that they will not recognise the annexations – and that Russia’s new territorial claims will not slow Ukraine reclaiming its sovereign land.
“These referenda are an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that underpin the international system,” said White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
“If this does transpire, the United States will never recognise Russia’s claims to any purportedly annexed parts of Ukraine.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “Russia, its political leadership, and all those involved in these ‘referenda’ and other violations of international law in Ukraine will be held accountable, and additional restrictive measures against Russia would be considered.”
The occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions have said they are ready to hold “polls”, which will be universally viewed as rigged, as soon as this week, with announcements also made in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Some Russian media have reported that Vladimir Putin may deliver a speech on Tuesday evening on a potential annexation.
As Ukrainian troops begin making advances in the Luhansk region, Russia may be worried that it can’t win on the battlefield and threaten a potential escalation, including a formal declaration of war or even a nuclear attack, by claiming to defend its own territory.
“Everything that’s happening today is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum to Ukraine and the west,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert on Kremlin politics and founder of R.Politik. “Either Ukraine retreats or there will be nuclear war.”
“To guarantee ‘victory’, Putin is ready to hold referendums immediately in order to obtain the right (in his understanding) to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory.”
Also on Tuesday, the Russian state Duma passed new amendments to the legal code that directly refer to “mobilisation” and “martial law” and introduce criminal liability for desertion or wilful surrender during that period.
The Kremlin has so far resisted a full mobilisation, likely due to fear of a political backlash. Experts have also questioned whether a Russian mobilisation would have any immediate effect in terms of stopping a Ukrainian advance that has reclaimed more than 3,000 square miles in the past month.
“There’s one problem,” wrote Ekaterina Schulmann, a political analyst. “The administrative side of adding new territory takes time, mobilising and integrating mobilised troops takes time, and they’re assuming the opposing side is going to stop and wait – evidently, out of respect for the Russian legislative process.”
Now, however, it seems that the Kremlin may be willing to go further than before, including using nuclear blackmail in order to freeze the war and solidify its territorial gains in Ukraine.
The decision has not been publicly adopted by the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin. However, senior Russian officials, including the former president Dmitry Medvedev, have supported calls for the referendums.
In a post on his Telegram page, Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, said the referendums would “completely change the vector of Russia’s development for decades”. They would also prevent a future Russian leader from reversing Russian support for the Ukrainian regions, he wrote.
“That is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and in the west,” he wrote. “That is why they need to be carried out.”
In a response, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, wrote that the referendums would not prevent Ukraine from continuing to “liberate its territories”.
“Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything,” wrote Kuleba. “Neither will any hybrid ‘mobilisation’. Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them no matter what Russia says.”
Pro-Kremlin pundits have welcomed annexations of new territory and an implicit threat that Russia is ready to begin a total war with the west over Ukraine.
“An immediate referendum is the Crimean scenario, it’s all in,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT and a vocal supporter of the war. “Today there is a referendum, tomorrow –– recognition as part of the Russian Federation, and the day after tomorrow –– strikes on the territory of Russia become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and Nato with Russia, untying Russia’s hands in all respects.
“This week marks either the eve of our imminent victory or the eve of nuclear war,” she wrote.
The “referendums” are likely to be held in an environment of coercion with no independent monitoring or verification.
In Zaporizhzhia, the head of the occupation administration said they would go door-to-door with the police to encourage people “freed from Nazism” to vote. The “polls” were scheduled to open on Friday, he said.