First day for the referendums on the integration of the occupied territories into Russia and the effervescence further intensifies. Both Ukraine and the West have expressed their outrage, calling them “fake referendums”, but Moscow is not stopping there.
The referendums in question, the duration of which will be five days, taking place in the separatist, pro-Russian provinces Donetsk and Luhansk (in eastern Ukraine) as well as in the Russian-occupied areas in the provinces Kherson and Zaporizhia.
In the event that the annexation of the above areas to Russia “passes”, Moscow could claim that its territory is under attack from Ukraine and the weapons provided to it by the West.
Claim which could further escalate the war.
Why is the referendum being held now?
Seven months after the start of the Russian invasion, Putin finds himself in a difficult position because of it of a strong counterattack by the Ukrainian forces and the territories they recaptured.
The annexation vote is one of three steps taken by the Kremlin in an effort to bring it back to the forefront of the war.
According to a BBC analysis, by annexing another 15% of sovereign Ukraine, Russia would be able to claim that its territory is being attacked by weapons supplied by NATO and other Western countries to Ukraine.
This also justifies Putin’s deployment of an additional 300,000 troops to be on the front lines and defend a 1,000 kilometer radius.
The referendum was declared illegal from several western countriesincluding the international monitoring team and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The Russian media, for their part, continue the propaganda as usual, believing that “yes” will prevail for the annexation of the territories to Russia.
What makes these polls “fake”
Today’s referendums are quite reminiscent of what was held on March 16, 2014, when Crimea was annexed to Russia.
While the Kremlin claimed 96.7% were in favor, a leaked report from Russia’s Human Rights Council said only about 30% had voted and barely half supported annexation.
The four regions that today’s referendum concerns are either partially or fully under Russian occupation.
In the south, Kherson is not a safe place at the moment, with Russian soldiers struggling to hold off a major Ukrainian counter-offensive. The central administration building was hit by a barrage of rockets just last week.
Russian media reported that officials go door to door with portable ballot boxes from today until Monday. Polling stations will only operate on the fifth day, September 27, with officials citing security concerns.
Hundreds of polling stations are scheduled to open that day, with voters also able to vote in regions outside their own and refugees eligible to vote in parts of Russia itself.
Then there’s Zaporizhia, which remains in Ukrainian hands, so any vote to annex this area is meaningless. Accordingly, tDonetsk in the east is only 60% Russian-held and largely at the center of the conflict.
Russia controls most of Luhansk in the northeast, even if it has begun to lose ground. Russian news agencies showed leaflets handed out on the streets with a headline “Russia is the future”.
Russian-backed leaders have wanted to hold a referendum for several months, but the decision to hold the vote was made three days ago and smacks of desperation.
The scenarios for the next day
Ukrainian Defense Ministry adviser Yuri Sak told the BBC that the so-called referendums are doomed. “We see that the local people are all in favor of going back to Ukraine, and that’s why there is so much resistance to the rebel movement in these areas.”
In any case, Kyiv says nothing will change and its forces will continue to press for the liberation of the territories.
Russian analyst Alexander Baunov says that, even if the annexation is voted down, the Ukrainian army will not stop, but it is sending a message of intent to the populations under their control. And the Kremlin’s hope is that the West will be displeased if its weapons are fired into territory Moscow has declared Russian.
Vladimir Putin spoke of using all means at his disposal “to protect Russia”. And in case there was any doubt, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, made it clear that nuclear weapons could also be used to protect annexed territories.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke about “dangerous escalation”but reaffirmed Washington’s position that no Russian claim to Ukrainian territory could take away Ukraine’s right to defend itself.
Even Turkey, which tried to play a mediating role, has condemned the vote as illegal.
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