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Threatening Nukes, Moscow Stages Phony Referendums in Occupied Ukraine

People hold Ukrainian flags and a banner that reads "Kherson is Ukraine" during a rally against Russian occupation in Svobody (Freedom) Square in Kherson, March 5, 2022. (Associated Press)
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Russian president

“It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.”


This week, Moscow-appointed leaders in four occupied regions of Ukraine appealed for speedy referendums to justify Russia annexing them.

Some analysts said that Ukraine’s recent battlefield wins forced Moscow to rush the referendums so Russia can lay claim to captured territory before it shrinks.

The planned referendums clearly expose a falsehood Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed at the outset of the February 24 invasion:

“It is not our plan to occupy Ukrainian territory,” he told the Russian people. “We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.”

Yet on September 21, in a tacit admission of losses, Putin ordered a partial mobilization of the country to get more troops into Ukraine “to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories.”

And he threatened to back them up with the ultimate military force.

“In the event of the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” Putin added. “This is not a bluff.”

The statement was widely taken to mean use of nuclear weapons. Less clear is whether by “territory” Putin includes areas that Russia illegally occupies.

The plans for sham voting extend a line of Kremlin propaganda justifying the war as necessary to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine.

Russia used the same rationale when annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and when attacking Georgia in 2008. (Russian troops remain there, in South Ossetia.)

Top officials have attempted to give the referendums an air of democratic legitimacy.

“From the very start of the operation ... we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

While there’s no doubt some in the occupied provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson would back annexation to Russia, it’s unlikely that hastily organized elections will represent anything like the popular will.

People carry flags of Russia and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic during a rally marking the 7th anniversary of the referendum on secession in the city of Donetsk on May 11, 2021. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
People carry flags of Russia and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic during a rally marking the 7th anniversary of the referendum on secession in the city of Donetsk on May 11, 2021. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank that issues comprehensive daily reports on the war, predicted that Moscow “will use the falsified results of these sham referenda to illegally annex all Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.”

Analyst Nikolaus von Twickel , who served in the OSCE Mission as a media liaison officer in Donetsk in 2015-16, said the voting has nothing to do with the welfare of the people in occupied areas but instead gives Russia political cover:

“[Moscow] desperately needs to threaten Ukraine and her Western allies, underlining that attacks on annexed territories will be deemed equal to attacks on Russia – a logic that has been repeatedly rejected by U.S. President Joe Biden and many NATO allies,” he wrote.

Echoing officials in the United States, Britain and Ukraine, the Council of Europe’s general secretary, Marija Pejcinovic Buric, condemned the planned votes.

“We reject this mockery of democracy and reaffirm our commitment to the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of our member state Ukraine within its internationally-recognized borders,” Buric said. “Such ‘referenda’ – held at gunpoint by occupying forces – disrespect basic democratic principles.”

Kyiv has said the referendums won’t matter and that its troops will continue fighting to liberate occupied areas as “new facts of Russian atrocities” are being uncovered in territory recaptured by Ukrainian forces.

Two of the provinces where referendums will be held, Luhansk and Donetsk, are already home to self-proclaimed “people’s republics” – Kremlin-controlled breakaway areas infiltrated after Russia’s clandestine invasion of Crimea in 2014.

The other two regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, were taken by the Russians earlier this year. Ukrainian forces are contesting all four provinces.

Given the ongoing fighting, can voters freely be “masters of their fate?”

In Zaporizhzhia, occupation authorities said members of the central election commission, along with police, would go door-to-door and “invite” people to vote.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project wrote in July that “a nexus of crime, corruption and rebellion has flourished” in Donetsk and Luhansk under pro-Russian administration.

Basic civic and human rights in the two provinces have been “severely restricted since the armed groups took control in 2014,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in December 2021.

Another U.N. report found that arbitrary detention and torture were rife. In 2019, a businessman in Luhansk “was held incommunicado for three days” and was later sentenced to over 13 years in prison for expressing pro-Ukrainian views.

Civilians have also faced torture, unlawful detention and been forcibly disappeared in the occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, rights groups report. Moscow’s proxy leaders are also conducting forced “Russification” in occupied territories.

The blueprint for sham referendums was established in Crimea, where voting was similarly carried out under Russian military occupation in March of 2014. It did not allow for public debate or for political leaders from greater Ukraine to visit.

Neither option on the ballot allowed Crimeans to remain part of Ukraine. Some reports suggest the result was rigged, but the very premise that a such a referendum of secession would pass international legal muster is flawed.

“It’s a matter of international law: Territory cannot be annexed simply because the people who happen to be living there today want to secede,” Lea Brilmayer, the Howard Holtzmann Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, wrote for Britain’s Guardian newspaper at the time of Crimea’s annexation in March 2014.

“The legal methods for resolving questions of sovereignty are founded on widely recognized principles of international law. These do not include, and have never included, a simple referendum of people living in a contested territory.”

What was true in 2014 is true today.

The Luhansk and Donetsk provinces previously held referendums in May of 2014 that pro-Russian organizers said endorsed separation from Ukraine. The BBC described the voting as "chaotic," and Ukraine called it a "criminal farce."

In December 1991, Ukraine held an internationally legitimate referendum to declare independence from the Soviet Union.

Approximately 92 percent of participants voted for Ukraine’s independence, including overwhelming majorities in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, and even a majority in Crimea, where Russian influence is strongest.