Russia announced on Tuesday evening that four Ukrainian regions it partially controls had voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. These predetermined results have been dismissed by Ukraine and Western nations as illegal sham referendums, thin pretexts for the outright theft of 15% of Ukrainian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to announce on Friday his intention to annex the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, and the Russian parliament could vote on annexation legislation on October 4.
During four days of voting, “Ukrainians were alternately cajoled and intimidated into voting in Kremlin-organized referendums.” The New York Times reports. “Russian authorities and their proxies in Ukraine have mixed crude intimidation tactics,” like gunmen wearing ski masks, “with Orwellian messaging and a few stabbings at festivities including barely-attended concerts on central squares”.
Pro-Kremlin news sources report that approval in the four regions ranged from 87% in Kherson to 99% in Donetsk, percentages “which would be unusual in a vote of this nature”, notes BBC News dryly. “Russian officials pre-ordained and falsified alleged voter approval ratings and turnouts for sham referendums while coercing Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories to performatively vote for Russian annexation,” assesses the think tank of the Institute for the Study of War.
The referendum and the annexations, even if recognized only by Syria and Nicaragua, would open a new and more dangerous phase of the Russian invasion. Putin and other Russian officials have said that Russia will consider annexed Ukrainian territory as part of Russia and that any attack on these areas will be an attack on Russia. It would also allow, ISW notes, “the forced conscription of Ukrainian civilians into the Russian military in the normal fall conscription cycle.”
It is estimated that 200,000 Russian men have already fled Putin’s plan, crossing through Kazakhstan, the European Union or Georgia. Border guards begin to crack down, handing conscription papers to men on a list.
Meanwhile, “the Ukrainian military offensive that ousted Russian troops from the Kharkiv region earlier this month has now penetrated deep into the northern part of the neighboring Donetsk region, increasingly threatening Russian control over the lands that Moscow seeks to annex”. The Wall Street Journal reports. Ukrainian forces are still on the defensive in parts of Donetsk, mainly repelling a mercenary attack on the town of Bakhmut, but Ukrainian forces continue their slow advance in Kherson province.