Russia begins illegal referendums in Ukraine to annex disputed regions


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A headshot of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Highly controversial Russian referendums began in Ukraine on Friday, with the aim of showcasing so-called public support for the annexation of Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation. The voting is occurring in the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson–some of which are only partially controlled by Russia at the moment.

Russian news outlets have confirmed that voting will be conducted through a door-to-door system in most cases, as the short-term notice of the announcement left little time to build key voting infrastructure. Residents will be handed paper ballots by authorities to fill out at their own homes.

Ninel Lysenko, originally from Donetsk, was there when a similar vote occurred in 2014. Fleeing Melitopol, she said “I saw what they did there, and it was all staged… I mean, what can you do when they come to your home? How can you vote when they have guns?”

The referendums are not only illegal under Ukrainian law but under international law as well. The referendums do not meet the basic democratic standards for free and fair elections and have therefore been seen as fraudulent by many, with the result likely to fall in Moscow’s favor.

Global leaders have denounced the process, with U.S. President Joseph Biden saying that the referendums were a ”sham.”

At the same time, the referendums could still open the door for the Kremlin to “officially” annex the regions, expanding Russia’s borders. Furthermore, Russia could use the outcome of the referendums to illegitimately claim that any future attempt by Ukrainian forces to take back the regions is an attack on Russia itself, escalating the war.

The move reflects Moscow’s decades-old Stalinist playbook of introducing illegal pseudo votes in neighboring nations that Russia wants to annex. At the same time, Russia has broken its own rulebook–in the past, Russia commenced staged votes only after territories had been invaded and occupied fully. This change likely reflects President Vladimir Putin’s worry that his military forces may face a real risk of defeat.

Russian-backed separatists have chorused their support for the vote. Leonid Pasechnik, the Russian-backed leader of the self-described Luhansk People’s Republic, has been vocal in his avid support for the annexation, saying “All of us have been waiting for a referendum on joining Russia for 8 long years. We have already become part of Russia. There remains only a small matter – to win [the war].”

While Russia had previously recognized Ukraine’s post-Soviet era borders under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Putin still believes several regions of eastern and southern Ukraine to be rightful territories of Russia due to mistakes made by Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev.

At the United Nations, members of the Security Council (SC) have condemned Putin’s annexation plans. The SC has further criticized Russia’s escalation of the war, specifically noting Russia’s mobilization of troops and Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the council that the latest developments in the war by Russia are “dangerous and disturbing.” He went on to further say “They are further steps away from any prospect of peace- and towards an endless cycle of horror and bloodshed.”