Four occupied regions of Ukraine are set to begin voting Friday in Kremlin-designed referendums on whether to become part of Russia, paving the way for Moscow to annex the regions in a sharp escalation of the nearly seven-month-old war.
Ukraine and its Western allies rejected the vote, calling it illegitimate, free and unfair, saying they would have no binding force.
German Chancellor Olaf Schulz and US President Joe Biden both described the two votes as “mock referendums” this week, while French President Emmanuel Macron said they would have no “legal consequences”, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called them “noise” to distract the public. .
Authorities in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that make up Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbass suddenly announced just three days ago that referendums on whether to join Russia would be held starting Friday. Moscow-backed officials in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions also called for a vote.
The moves came after months of conflicting signals from Moscow and separatist officials about referendums that reflected shifts on the battlefield.
During the summer, when the Kremlin hoped to quickly capture all of the Donbass region, local officials talked about organizing the September vote.
Russian and local separatist forces controlled almost all of the Luhansk region, but only about 60% of the Donetsk region. The slow pace of the Russian offensive in the east and Ukrainian pressure to take back areas in the Kherson region prompted officials in Moscow to talk about delaying the vote until November.
The Kremlin’s plans changed again after a Ukrainian blitzkrieg counterattack this month forced Russian forces to withdraw from large areas of the northeastern Kharkiv region and raised the prospect of further gains for Kyiv’s forces.
By moving quickly to absorb the captured territory in Russia, the Kremlin hopes to force Ukraine to halt its counter-offensive and accept existing occupation zones or face devastating retaliation, observers say.
The five-day voting process will take place in the absence of independent observers and provide ample scope for falsification of results.
Referendums are a familiar Russian tactic
If hastily arranged referendums sound familiar, it is because it is a tactic that Russia has used before.
In 2014, he hastily held a referendum in the Crimea region of Ukraine, which was also denounced by the West as illegal and illegitimate. Moscow used the vote as a justification to annex the Black Sea peninsula in a move most of the world did not recognize.
The 2014 vote was held in Crimea under the close watch of Russian forces shortly after they took control of the peninsula, where most of the population was loyal to Moscow.
The separatists, who have controlled large parts of Donbass since 2014, have long lobbied to join Russia and have shown little tolerance for dissent. When a rebellion broke out there, the separatists quickly organized referendums in which the majority voted to join Russia, but the Kremlin ignored the outcome.
The two regions declared independence from Ukraine weeks after annexing Crimea, sparking eight years of fighting that President Vladimir Putin used as a pretext to launch an invasion in February to protect their residents.
Anti-Russian opposition in southern Ukraine
In the southern regions, occupied by Russian troops in the first days of the invasion, anti-Russian sentiment was strong. Hundreds of pro-Kiev activists were arrested, and many alleged that they had been tortured. Others were forcibly removed and tens of thousands fled.
Since the Russian forces overran the Kherson region and part of the Zaporozhye region, the Moscow-appointed authorities there cut off Ukrainian television broadcasts, replacing Russian programs with Russian ones. They distributed Russian passports to residents, gave out rubles and even issued Russian license plates to pave the way for their integration into Russia.
Moscow-appointed departments have been repeatedly attacked by members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, who have killed local officials, bombed polling stations and other government buildings, and helped the Ukrainian military target key infrastructure.