UpdatePro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions are holding referendums on accession to Russia from today until September 27. The controversial plebiscites – described by the West as “sham referendums” – are a response to Ukraine’s current counter-offensive in the east of that country. The separatist leaders and Russian state media had announced the referendums on Tuesday.

    Read all the news about the war in Ukraine in our file.

    The integration of the four territories with Russia could mean a major escalation in the conflict. Ukraine and its allies denounce such referendums as illegal, and few countries are expected to recognize their outcome.

    The referenda are reminiscent of the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014. This also happened after a plebiscite, which is not recognized internationally. Now, too, Kiev and the West have ruled out recognizing the results.

    “We will settle the matter,” the head of the Ukrainian presidential staff told Telegram. “This threat can be liquidated by force. This kind of Russian blackmail arises because of fear of loss.”

    “Vital step”

    Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia, previously called such referendums “essential” so that the regions can join Russia. According to him, it is a “vital step to protect the interests of the inhabitants and to be able to account for Russia’s use of military means for their security”. A referendum could change “the path of Russian history,” he said.

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    Separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk broke away from Ukraine in 2014. They proclaimed two people’s republics that until early this year were only recognized by each other and South Ossetia, a renegade pro-Russian region of Georgia that is itself considered a country by only a handful of countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin decided in February – just before the Russian invasion – to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

    Mobilization

    A referendum will also be held in Kherson. Russian troops control about 95 percent of the southern Ukrainian region. Finally, a plebiscite is also organized in the area around Zaporizhzhya.

    As Russia tries to tighten its grip on occupied Ukrainian territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin also repeated nuclear threats. In his speech broadcast Wednesday morning, a day after the referendum announcement, Putin announced a partial mobilization. He also threatened to use “all means at our disposal” to “protect Russia and our people” if the “territorial integrity of our country is threatened”. “This is not a bluff,” he also said.

    Putin’s threats follow Ukraine’s counter-offensive in recent weeks. The Ukrainians recaptured more than 10 percent of the territory the Russians had taken. With the annexation, the Kremlin hopes to be able to mobilize the population in its own country. The Russian army currently has a shortage of soldiers in Ukraine.

    A woman walks past a vehicle that caught fire in Donetsk.

    A woman walks past a vehicle that caught fire in Donetsk. © REUTERS

    “Sham referendum”

    However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks of “mock referendums” and a “further escalation of Putin’s war” against Ukraine. He calls on the international community to condemn “this flagrant violation of international law” and to step up support for Ukraine. The Norwegian is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.


    The United States also speaks of “sham referendums”. “We will never recognize this area as anything but part of Ukraine,” Jake Sullivan, US President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser, said Tuesday. According to Sullivan, this is a mockery of the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity on which the international system is based. “We know that these referendums are being manipulated. We know that Russia will use this mock referendum now or in the future as a basis for a suspected annexation of these territories,” it said.

    German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in New York that the “mock referendums” violate international law and will not be accepted. According to him, they are merely attempts to disguise “imperialist aggression”.

    French President Emmanuel Macron said the “cynical” plan would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. In any case, the international community will not recognize the results of this “parody”, Macron said. Like Scholz, he called on Moscow to leave Ukraine.

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