Four occupied regions of Ukraine began voting Friday in referendums organized by the Kremlin on whether to become part of Russia, setting the stage for Moscow to annex the regions in a sharp escalation of the nearly seven-month war.
Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed the votes as illegal, saying they are neither free nor fair and have told Vladimir Putin they will not be binding, the Associated Press notes, citing an analysis of the referendums and their implications. .
USA: New sanctions on Russia if it annexes Ukrainian territories
Why are referendums held?
The Kremlin has used this tactic in the past. In 2014, he held a hastily called referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which was also denounced by the West as illegal and unfair.
Moscow used the vote as an excuse to annex the Black Sea peninsula, in a move not recognized by most of the world.
On Tuesday, authorities in the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up Ukraine’s eastern industrial hinterland known as Donbas, suddenly announced that referendums on joining Russia would be held from Friday. Moscow-backed officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia regions in the south also called votes.
The moves followed months of conflicting messages from Moscow and separatist officials about the referendums, reflecting shifts in the battleground.
Ukraine’s counterattack changed Moscow’s plans
During the summer, when the Kremlin was hoping for a quick takeover of the entire Donbass region, local officials were talking about holding elections in September.
Russian troops and local separatist forces have brought under their control almost all of the Lugansk region, but only about 60% of the Donetsk region.
The slow pace of the Russian offensive in the east and Ukrainian pressure to retake territory in the Kherson region has prompted officials in Moscow to talk of delaying the referendums until November.
The Kremlin’s plans changed again after a lightning-quick Ukrainian counteroffensive this month forced Russian troops to retreat from large swathes of the northeastern region of Kharkiv and raised the prospect of more gains by Kiev’s forces.
Observers say, therefore, that by moving quickly to absorb Russian-conquered territory, the Kremlin hopes to force Ukraine to halt its counteroffensive and accept the current areas of occupation or face devastating retaliation.
What happens in the areas where referendums will be held
The 2014 vote in Crimea was held under close watch by Russian troops, shortly after they had seized the peninsula, where most residents were pro-Moscow.
The separatists, who have controlled large parts of Donbass since 2014, have long pushed to join Russia and have shown little tolerance for dissent. When the rebellion broke out there, separatists quickly held referendums, in which a majority voted to join Russia, but the Kremlin ignored the result.
The two regions declared independence from Ukraine weeks after Crimea was annexed, sparking eight years of fighting that President Vladimir Putin used as a pretext to launch an invasion in February to protect their residents.
In the southern regions, which were occupied by Russian troops in the first days of the invasion, anti-Russian sentiment is strong. Hundreds of pro-Kiev activists have been arrested, with many claiming torture. Others were forcibly expelled and tens of thousands fled.
Since Russian forces invaded the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhia region, Moscow-appointed authorities there have cut off Ukrainian television broadcasts, replacing them with Russian programming.
They issued Russian passports to residents, introduced the ruble, and even issued Russian license plates, to pave the way for their integration into Russia.
Moscow-appointed administrations have often come under attack from members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, which has killed local officials, bombed polling stations and other government buildings, and helped the Ukrainian military bomb key infrastructure.
What is being said about the legitimacy of referendums?
The five-day voting process will be held in the absence of independent observers – although Moscow claims it has invited them – and offers plenty of room for rigging the result.
When the referendums were announced earlier this week, the West immediately questioned their legitimacy. US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called them a fraud, while French President Emmanuel Macron said they would have “no legal consequences”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the referendums as “noise” to distract public opinion.
What do they have to do with the conscription declared by Putin
A day after the referendums were announced, Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reserves to bolster his forces in Ukraine and also said he was ready to use nuclear weapons to repel any attacks on Russian soil.
The defense ministry said the conscription – Russia’s first since World War II – aims to call up about 300,000 reservists with previous military experience.
Observers noted, however, that Putin’s order is broad enough to allow the military to increase the number of soldiers if necessary. According to some reports, in fact, the goal of the Kremlin is the gathering of one million men.
The Kremlin has long shied away from such a deeply unpopular move for fear of stoking discontent and eroding Vladimir Putin’s base of support.
The latest Ukrainian counteroffensive exposed Russia’s inability to control the 1,000km front line with its current limited volunteer force.
Military experts say, however, that it will take months to make the newly called-up reservists ready for combat.
How is Putin’s nuclear threat related?
As Putin struggles to find ways to avoid further humiliating defeats, he announced on Wednesday his readiness to use nuclear weapons to protect the country’s territory — a stark warning to Ukraine to stop pressing its offensive into areas it is now set to become part of Russia.
Observers saw Putin’s threat as an effective ultimatum to Ukraine and its Western backers to freeze the conflict or face a possible escalation, even a nuclear conflict.
While Russian military doctrine provides for the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear or conventional attack that “threatens the very existence of the state,” Putin’s statement further lowered the threshold for their use.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, reinforced the president’s threat on Thursday, saying that after annexing the four Ukrainian regions, Moscow could use “any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons,” to their defense.
The mention of strategic nuclear forces, which include intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers, sent a message that Russia could target not only Ukraine, but also the US and its allies with nuclear weapons, in the event of an escalation.
Zelensky dismissed the nuclear threats as grave-digging and promised to liberate all occupied territories.
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