Russian annexation referendums begin in four occupied regions of Ukraine

Photos: Twitter/@maxseddon,@Sprinter88000

Voting began on Friday in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine in referendums that Russia is expected to use to justify the annexation of four regions, with one Ukrainian official reported as saying voting was mandatory.

Serhiy Gaidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, said that in the Russian-held town Bilovodsk, the head of one enterprise told employees the referendum was mandatory and those who refused to vote would be fired and their names given to the security service.

He also reported that in the town of Starobilsk, Russian authorities banned the population from leaving the city until Tuesday and armed groups had been sent to search homes and coerce people to get out to take part in the referendum.

Voting in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to Tuesday. The referendums, having been discussed for months by Moscow collaborators and widely condemned by the West, come after Ukraine this month recaptured large swathes of territory in a swift counteroffensive. With Russian strongman Vladimir Putin also announcing earlier this week a partial military mobilisation to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the conflict.

Ukraine says the aggressor intends to frame the referendum results as a sign of popular support, and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognised.

Alleged ‘self-defence’

By incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could justify military escalation as necessary to defend its territory. Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he emphasised.

“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president (2008 - 2012), said in a post on Telegram.

Referendum results in favour of Russia are considered inevitable. The vote in Crimea in 2014, criticised internationally as rigged, had an official result of 97 percent in favour of formal annexation.

The referendums have been denounced by world leaders including US President Joe Biden, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as NATO, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).