Over the past week, the four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine—Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson—are faced with two choices in a referendum:
Join Russia or remain with Ukraine.
Well, the results are out.
Luhansk authorities report that 98.5% of the votes support annexation based on 69% of the ballots counted; in Zaporizhzhia, 93.1% have voted to join Russia; as did 87% in Kerson and 99% of Donetsk.
The numbers look incredibly suspicious, and the West is calling the referendums a sham.
Familiar Formula of Annexation
Like in Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin government has proven it does not care about the opinion of others.
On Moscow’s Red Square, a tribune with huge video screens has been set up, with billboards proclaiming “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!”
Although President Putin has not declared the annexation of occupied Ukraine in a speech, it is just a matter of time.
The pattern that the annexation is following is very similar to Crimea and Georgia, after all.
In Russo-Georgian War of 2008, Russia accused Georgia of “committing genocide” and “aggression against South Ossetia”, and thus launched a peace enforcement operation.
Aforementioned operation involved a full-scale air, land, and sea invasion of Georgia over the next few days, and Russian forces came to occupy the cities of Zugdidi, Senaki, Poti and Gori, and it continued to hold onto these territories even after ceasefire.
Russia then recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia on 26 August 2008.
For Crimea, pro-Russian demonstrations began in the city of Sevastopol on 24 February 2014.
Three days later, unmarked forces with local militia took over the Crimea and Sevastopol, with Russian forces taking control of the buildings of the Supreme Council of Crimea and Council of Ministers in Simferopol.
The Crimean parliament eventually voted to hold a referendum on greater autonomy on 25 May.
The Crimean status referendum was held on 15 March 2014, with 97% of the ballots voting for the integration of the region into the Russian federation.
On 18 March 2014, President Vladimir Putin gave a speech to both chambers of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation with the request for admission by the Crimean parliament.
If the bolded points sound familiar, that’s because all of these have happened to Ukraine in the span of the six months.
On 24 February 2022, President Putin announced that Russia will be carrying out a “special military operation” in Ukraine as he received appeals for assistance from the Donbas region. He stated that his goal is “to protect the people who have been subjected to abuse [and] genocide by the Kyiv regime”.
Two days prior, he recognised the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Compared to the Russo-Georgian War, however, the Ukrainian crisis has been going on for six months.
The referendum may just be a way to consolidate the Kremlin’s small victories and regain their foothold after Kyiv’s recent counterattack.
“Voluntary” Votes at Gunpoint
Russia claims that the voting was voluntary and the turn-out was high.
Yet, the refugees that fled the Russian-held territory are saying that the voting for the referendum are carried out by men with guns, who force people to cast ballots in the street.
Yes, people voting under duress is considered “voluntary”. It is not like their lives are at risk or something.
Boyko, who fled with his wife and two children from Zaporizhzhia city, recounted seeing these armed men going from house to house, “but nobody came out”. He added that the only people who voted are the ones who switched sides.
An agricultural worker from Beryslav, Kherson, states that he witnessed passers-by being forced to fill up the ballots while kneeling at a Bereslav crossroad.
According to Reuters, entire villages in the four occupied regions have been deserted as people leave because of the referendum.
Before the four-day-long referendum vote began, Russian troops had practically blockaded all the paths out of the country.
Refugees state that there is only one checkpoint out of the occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. It seems that only some people are being let out, but no one knows how long this route will stay open.
Fate of Those Who Stayed
One of the greatest fears for people who remained in the Russian-held territories is that fighting-aged men will be forced into the Russian forces once Moscow declares that the regions are part of the Federation.
In Russia, the mobilisation of farmers to fight Ukraine has already driven thousands of Russians into the borders of neighbouring countries.
Approximately 66,000 Russians have entered the European Union, mostly through Finland and Estonia.
Moreover, the Kremlin has criminalised desertion, surrender, and going absent without leave during mobilisation.
This move is purely tactical; Russia needs the extra troops to defend the front line which is 1,000 kilometres long. The past months have shown that Ukraine has plenty of international support and volunteers, whereas Russia struggles to gather willing fighters.
Public schools in the four regions have been ordered to switch to the Russian curriculum and classes next month.
Moscow intends to “Russify” the areas under its control, even going as far as issuing Russian passports to people.
Reactions To The Referendums
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been rallying international support against the Russian annexations in a series of calls with foreign leaders, including Britain, Canada, Germany and Türkiye.
He also accused Moscow of “brutally violating the UN statute” by annexing territories that were seized by force.
“This is a very cynical attempt to force men in the occupied territory of Ukraine to mobilise into the Russian army in order to send them to fight against their own homeland!” President Zelenskyy added.
The Biden administration has announced another $1.1 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, thus bringing US commitment to more than $16.2 billion.
The 22nd instalment is made up of 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and its munitions, 150 armoured multi-purpose vehicles, 150 tactical vehicles for weapon towing, 40 trucks and 80 trailers for artillery transport, two radars for unmanned aerial systems and 20 multi-mission radars.
The White House will be announcing another tranche of sanctions soon.
As the Ukraine Foreign Ministry urges the European Union (EU) to impose more sanctions on Russia, the European economic bloc is proposing an oil price cap and ban on Russian exports that are worth seven billion euros.
Since Russia’ oil and gas industry accounts for 21.7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the EU is one of its biggest customers, this is bound to have a negative impact on its impact.
After annexing 15% of Ukraine, Russia may claim that its sovereign territory is under attack from weapons provided by NATO and other countries.
Last week, President Putin said that he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia… which is about to become bigger.
Should Russia genuinely go through with its annexation plans (which it likely will), all possibility of peace talks with Ukraine will be destroyed.
As per usual, the US has warned that there will be “catastrophic consequences” for Russia if it resorts to the ‘N’ word.
Diplomats from other countries see Moscow’s constant reiteration of the nuclear threat as an attempt to scare the West into reducing its support for Kyiv.
In spite of the impending annexation of the occupied territory and the nuclear threats, Ukraine is determined to continue fighting.
Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters, “We believe the war can only end when we have liberated our territory in the internationally recognised borders of 1991. We have no other scenarios.”
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