Russia Poised to Annex Ukrainian Regions After Victory Claims in Controversial Referendums

Dimitri Simes | September 28, 2022 | 8:32pm EDT
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Konstantin Ivashchenko, the pro-Russian ‘mayor’ of Mariupol in the Donetsk region, visits a heavily guarded polling station used in the five-day referendum on whether the region should join the Russian Federation. (Photo by Stringer / AFP via Getty Images)
Konstantin Ivashchenko, the pro-Russian ‘mayor’ of Mariupol in the Donetsk region, visits a heavily guarded polling station used in the five-day referendum on whether the region should join the Russian Federation. (Photo by Stringer / AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Four Ukrainian provinces held by Russian forces have announced their intention to join the Russian Federation following five-day referendums heavily criticized by the West.

Kremlin-backed authorities in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions said on Wednesday that the overwhelming majority of their voters had cast ballots in support of unification with Russia, claiming margins of 99, 98, 87, and 93 percent respectively.

The RIA Novosti state news agency reported later in the day that the leaders of the four regions had arrived in Moscow, presumably for consultations with President Vladimir Putin.

Both houses of the Russian parliament — the State Duma and the Federation Council — have announced that they will vote on the “incorporation” of the four regions next week. Putin is widely expected to kick off the process in a speech to lawmakers on Friday.

The four regions together encompass more than 90,000 square kilometers or 15 percent of Ukraine’s pre-conflict territory. Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk first declared their intention to secede from Ukraine in 2014, while Russian forces seized control of Kherson and most of Zaporizhzhia earlier this year.

Ukraine and its Western backers have denounced the referendums as a “sham” and warned that they will adopt new sanctions against Russia if it follows through on annexation. On Wednesday, U.S. officials signaled preparations for a new $1.1 billion arms package for Ukraine.

Some of Russia’s closest allies and partners — China, India, Kazakhstan, and Serbia — have likewise declined to endorse the results of the plebiscites. Although their governments avoided direct criticism of Moscow, they issued statements emphasizing their support for the “territorial integrity and sovereignty” of all countries.

Senior Kremlin official Sergey Kiriyenko dismissed the prospect of new Western sanctions over the referendums, noting that more than 1,200 sanctions had been imposed against Russia since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. “If they add something else, we will cope with them too,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Some Russian analysts argue that the referendums herald a change in Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine. Igor Strelkov, a retired Russian intelligence officer who led pro-Russian rebel forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014, predicted that the Kremlin would soon issue an ultimatum to Ukraine to withdraw its remaining forces from Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.

“If Ukraine refuses to fulfill this ultimatum, and the probability of that happening is 99 percent, then Russia will have the right to declare war on Ukraine, or upgrade the special military operation to a counter-terrorist operation,” he said during a press briefing in Moscow on Tuesday.

Strelkov added that the referendums closed the possibility for a negotiated settlements between Russia and Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Ahead of the voting exercise, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the same thing.

Although Russia sent its troops into Ukraine more than seven months ago, it has yet to formally declare war against its neighbor. It has instead categorized its campaign as a “special military operation” aimed at protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and preventing further NATO expansion along Russia’s borders.

A formal declaration of war would grant the Kremlin additional powers, such as the ability to mobilize Russia’s two million reservists, deploy conscripts to combat zones, and redirect economic production to military needs among other things.

There are already signs that Russia is preparing to ramp up its military efforts. Last week, Putin ordered that 300,000 reservists be called up for military service in Ukraine. He and other senior Russian officials have also publicly warned that nuclear weapons could be used if Russia’s “territorial integrity” comes under threat.

Strelkov downplayed the prospect of Russia deploying nuclear weapons on the battlefield, however, arguing that the Kremlin is far more likely to instead conduct additional waves of mobilization, to develop “qualitative and quantitative superiority” over the Ukrainian military.

“I believe that if NATO does not intervene with its troops and weaponry, then the use of nuclear weapons is not only inexpedient, but also unnecessary,” he said. “If Russia creates an army of a million people in the region, then it will be able to defeat Ukraine within a few months, without any nuclear weapons.”

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