Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are expected to begin voting in referendums on whether to join Russia, seven months after the fighting began, in a move that raises the stakes for an invasion by Moscow.
The referendums, which will be held over five days from Friday, could pave the way for the unification of Russian territories, and Moscow could see the ongoing counter-offensive in Ukraine as an attack on Russia.
The move could give Moscow an excuse to step up its messy war, which saw Kyiv reclaim thousands of square kilometers of territory this month in a stunning counteroffensive.
In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his speech, saying he would use “all means at our disposal” if he believed Russia’s “territorial integrity” was at risk.
The polls were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the southern Russian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and the questions on the ballot varied somewhat by region. The four regions make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plans have been condemned by the Ukrainian government and its Western allies as “illegitimate” and “hypocritical”. The European Union has said it will not recognize the results and has indicated that it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
Putin backed the referendums in an address to the nation on Wednesday.
“The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbas and the civil-military administration of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They have asked Russia to support this step, and we have emphasized that we will do everything to ensure safe conditions for people to express their will,” he said.
In both Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities have urged people to vote from home, saying they can bring ballot boxes.
Ahead of the vote, pro-Russian authorities have tried to galvanize voters. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster being distributed in Luhansk. It says: “Russia is the future.”
“We are united by a history of 1,000 years,” he says. “For centuries, we were part of the same great country. The breakup of the state was a huge political disaster. … It is time to restore historical justice”.
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live near the front lines of the conflict, will be successful or fair. Additionally, due to widespread internal displacement since the conflict began, voting databases may be out of date. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials say about half of the pre-war population has left.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the elections, has condemned the “illegal referendums”.
“Any so-called ‘referendum’ planned with the help of the forces illegally exercising de facto control over the occupied territories of Ukraine would violate international standards and obligations under international humanitarian law, and their consequences will therefore have no legal force,” he said 57 the OSCE that monitors elections in member states.
A 2014 referendum in Crimea, in which 97% of voters rejected the official annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
This time, some regions are planning to announce the results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after voting, while in Kherson authorities would wait five days after the polls closed.
Earlier this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied territories said a possible vote would be delayed due to the security situation, as Ukrainian forces press ahead with offensives in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, and Russian positions and supply lines under Kherson. Almost daily attacks by Ukrainian artillery.
Earlier this week there was a sudden and synchronized change of heart.
Since then, Russian politicians have offered their support, emphasizing that when these regions join Russia – if the votes are in their favor – they will have the right to Moscow’s full protection.
Russian MP Konstantin Kosachev said that Russia will have an obligation to protect these regions and that any attack on them will be considered an attack on Russia “with all its consequences”.
Former Russian President and Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitri Medvedev was more explicit, saying this would be of “great importance” for the “systemic protection” of neighbors and that any weapon in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used. To defend the territories united from Ukraine to Russia.
“Entering Russian territory is a crime that allows the use of all forces for self-defense,” Medvedev said.