“Sham” referendum in Russian-controlled Ukraine: what to know

four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions will vote on whether they want to join the Russian Federation or remain part of Ukraine, starting on Friday. Moscow has announced that Luhansk, Kherson and the regions of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, partially controlled by Russia, will vote in referendums from 23 to 27 September. Ukraine and the international community have expressed indignation that the elections will surely be a “fiction”. ”, Similar to the 2014 referendum in Crimea. The results of the 2014 referendum were highly contested as fraudulent and rejected by foreign powers, however Russia proceeded with the formal annexation of Crimea a few days later.

The former president and current deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, said that the referendum will redesign these territories in Russia, that this will be “irreversible” and that it will allow the Kremlin to use “all possible force in self-defense.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why is Russia calling for a referendum?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been underway for seven months, during which time Ukrainian forces have shown much more resilience than Russia anticipated.

“They started preparing this referendum when they first thought they would take Kiev in three days and hold a military parade with Putin,” said Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the University of Chicago with experience in Russian political and economic matters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated the invasion as an effort, claiming to free Ukrainians from an oppressive regime. Part of the justification has been built on the idea that there is a substantially ethnically Russian population in Ukraine that needs to be reunited with Russia.

“In Ukraine there are millions of them [ethnic] Russians. There are also tens of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Putin constantly confuses these two groups, “says Sonin.” It’s a relatively small share of people who want to be in Russia. It’s an even smaller share, who want to fight for it. “

Polls show that very few people in Ukraine have a desire to join Russia, but rather, experts argue, that the motive for Putin’s war was to preemptively nullify any possibility of Ukraine joining the Northern Treaty Organization. Atlantic (NATO).

“Nothing we’ve seen in recent months or years suggests that the vast majority of ethnic or Russian-speaking Russians in Ukraine would like to be part of the Russian Federation,” Thomas Graham, former special assistant to the president and senior Director of Russian Affairs by George W. Bush, he told TIME.

“I think the decision to take this move is linked to the setbacks that Russia has experienced on the battlefield in the past few days and weeks. It is a response to the pressure the Kremlin is feeling from hardline critics inside Russia to be more aggressive in carrying out a war in Ukraine, ”adds Graham.

The Russians have grown tired of the war, which Putin denies is a war, labeled a “special military operation”, the conflict has lost consensus in Russia after recent losses.

“By annexing these territories, they become part of Russia itself, and what was a” special operation “in Ukraine to defend the Russian-speaking Donbas region in Ukraine now becomes a conflict, perhaps a war itself, to defend the territory. Russian, Graham says.

The 1993 Russian constitution established the country to be a democratic republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country has frequent elections, but there has been a democratic setback in recent years. Putin’s authoritarian regime is plagued by documented corruption and human rights violations that are backed by controlled media and manipulated elections. While that suppresses most political dissent, the illusion of fair elections is a long-time tenant in Russian politics, according to research groups like the Brookings Institution.

How will the vote work?

Sonin and Graham both explain that the referendum results will almost certainly be in favor of joining Russia, but that they will also be completely fabricated. “Basically since 2019, every election in Russia is no longer representative of anything,” says Sonin.

Russia has a well-documented history of voter repression. Sonin claims that “these are not the real data”, while he describes the 2014 Russian referendum in Crimea, a precursor to the annexation of the territory. The official results boasted that 96% of voters wanted to join Russia and 83% of voters showed up.

“The data has artificially low variance. Basically, all the different districts report similar voter turnout and similar results, ”says Sonin.

Logistically, experts tell TIME that the referendum will likely mirror Crimea’s 2014 referendum to be tightly controlled by the Russian military and will have limited turnout, as millions of residents have evacuated these Russian-controlled Ukrainian territories once the conflict escalated.

“The authorities hardly had time to check the electoral rolls, to create appropriate electoral structures (and) to ensure that the electoral conditions were in place so that they could judge any disputes,” says Graham.

Are referendums a precursor to annexation?

Russia hasn’t officially announced it will annex any of these Ukrainian territories, but experts say referendums are a sign that annexation could come later.

The annexation may be a cause for celebration in Russia, but “the international community will not recognize it,” says Graham. Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, have said they will not recognize the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian territories.

If annexed, however, the way of life of Ukrainians in these occupied regions could change even more drastically overnight. “All Russian laws would now apply in these territories, they will move faster to put Russian administrations in place,” says Graham.

“They have already changed the school in the Russian curriculum. The goal is to try to make these regions legally and practically look like a normal Russian region, ”adds Graham.

Will it alter the trajectory of the war?

Ukraine has said it will not back down in response to referendums or the threat of annexation. The country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said the referendums will not prevent Ukraine from continuing to “free its territories. ” Sonin and Graham agree that this move is unlikely to change the trajectory of the war in any significant way.

However, one factor that will change if Russia legally recognizes parts of Ukraine as part of the Russian Federation, even without any international recognition, is that the Russian nuclear weapons doctrine would come into effect in these territories. This means that if Ukrainian forces attack Russian forces within those annexed territories, the Kremlin would consider it an attack on Russia itself and would have a legal basis for using nuclear force to defend itself.

This change could “dissuade the West from supplying Ukraine with more and more sophisticated equipment, weapons that the Ukrainians have used quite effectively on the battlefield,” says Graham.

Putin has been in power for 18 years and has signaled that he intends to seek another term in 2024. Referendums will likely not drastically change the war, but they show that Putin will do anything to win.

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