Russians protested in St Petersburg Friday for the annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces.Image AFP

    1. How are the ‘referenda’ going?

    “Conditions are simply excellent,” an international observer told Russian state television. “Since I am from Venezuela, I understand the special situation in which the vote takes place.”

    The woman from Venezuela is one of the few foreign observers flown in by Russia. Except for Venezuela, there are hardly any countries that recognize President Putin’s referendum.

    The five-day voting, which began Friday and ends Tuesday, will largely take place at front doors rather than at polling stations. Armed soldiers go door-to-door with ballot boxes, according to surveillance images of apartment buildings. Anyone who opens the door has to vote verbally, after which soldiers put a tick on a note, eyewitnesses in occupied territory tell Ukrainian media. In Mariupol, people receive drinking water in exchange for a vote, the Ukrainian authorities say. People who refuse to vote are registered.

    Russian soldiers are also voting, according to a report by the Russian state newspaper Izvestia. In it, a soldier from the invasion army says that he has voted to join Russia, so that ‘peace will come’.

    The result is predetermined. One of the executors of the vote, the Russian-installed “governor” of Kherson province, said on Monday that voters are “waiting to join Russia as soon as possible.” Russia stated on Monday that the turnout is already higher than 50 percent and that the result is therefore valid. The ‘result’ will probably be announced on Tuesday evening.

    2. What happens after the results are announced?

    The Crimean scenario is obvious. Russia occupied the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014 and then also held a so-called referendum. To the sounds of the national anthem, the Russian parliament voted in favor of incorporation (the only parliamentarian who voted against it later fled to Ukraine). Putin then signed the law that completed the annexation.

    Putin can quickly formalize the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, Kherson). Possibly already Tuesday evening. From the moment he puts his signature, Russia considers the provinces (18 percent of Ukraine) as Russian territory.

    None of the provinces is wholly Russian-owned. Analysts expect Putin to argue that Russia is being attacked and threaten with nuclear weapons. Putin can also declare martial law. Many residents of occupied territory have fled for fear of being mobilized into the Russian army.

    3. Will the Russian border remain open after annexation?

    Many Russians fear that Putin will use the referendum result to close the border. On Monday, a Russian senator already called for an exit ban on men who can be called up for conscription or mobilization. This would mean that men between the ages of 18 and 55 can no longer flee abroad.

    The fear of border closures explains the rushed exodus of Russian men. Several men called up by the army in recent days have already been stopped at the border. News site Meduza reports, based on sources in the Kremlin, that the border could be closed on Tuesday evening or Wednesday. After that, an exit permit is required from the Ministry of Defence. Good connections or deep pockets come in handy in Russia.

    4. Which countries support an annexation?

    Ukraine and the West speak of ‘sham referendums’. But when Putin annexes territory or declares a new country, there are always a few countries that support him. At the beginning of this year, with the declaration of independence of the ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, they were: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria. Plus some governments that are not themselves recognized, such as those of the Georgian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

    The same countries are likely to support Putin now. But the impending annexations do not go down well with Putin’s allies closer to home. Kazakhstan and Serbia announced on Monday that they would not recognize the results of the referendums.

    5. Does annexation affect peace negotiations?

    The chance of negotiations is minimised by annexations, experts say. After all, Putin will no longer want to relinquish territory that he has declared as part of Russia. Annexation means there is “no turning back” for Putin, Michael Kofman, a US expert on Russia’s defense, said in a recent discussion panel on the war. “After that there is nothing to negotiate with Ukraine.”

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