What the ‘Sham’ Referenda in Russian-Controlled Ukraine Could Mean for Both Countries
Four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions will be voting on whether they want to join the Russian Federation or remain part of Ukraine, beginning Friday. Moscow has announced that Luhansk, Kherson, and the partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions will vote in the referenda from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27. Ukraine and the international community have expressed outrage that the elections are sure to be a “sham,” similar to the 2014 referendum in Crimea. The 2014 referendum’s results were highly disputed as being fraudulent and dismissed by foreign powers, however, Russia proceeded to formally annex Crimea just days later.
Former President and current deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, said that the referenda will redraw these territories into Russia, that this will be “irreversible,” and that it’ll allow the Kremlin to use “all possible force in self-defense.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Why is Russia calling for referenda?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for seven months, during which Ukrainian forces have shown far more resilience than Russia anticipated.
“They started to prepare this referendum back when they first thought they would take Kyiv in three days and have a military parade with Putin,” says Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the University of Chicago with expertise in Russian political and economic issues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated the invasion as an effort, he claims, to liberate Ukrainians from an oppressive regime. Part of the justification for that was built on the notion that there is a substantial ethnically-Russian population in Ukraine that needs to be reunited with Russia.
“In Ukraine, there are millions of [ethnic] Russians. There are also tens of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Putin constantly confuses these two groups,” Sonin says. “It’s a relatively small share of people who want to be in Russia. It’s an even smaller share, who want to fight for this.”
Polling shows that very few people in Ukraine have the desire to join Russia, but rather, experts argue, that Putin’s motive for the war was to preemptively quash any chance of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“Nothing that we’ve seen over the past several months or years suggests that the overwhelming majority of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in Ukraine would want to be part of the Russian Federation,” Thomas Graham, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian Affairs under George W. Bush, tells TIME.
“I think the decision to take this move is related to the setbacks that Russia has experienced on the battlefield in the past several days and weeks. It’s a response to the pressure that the Kremlin is feeling from hardline critics inside Russia to be more aggressive in the execution of a war in Ukraine,” Graham adds.
Russians have grown weary of the war, which Putin denies is a war at all. Labeled a “special military operation,” the conflict has lost support in Russia after recent losses.
“By annexing these territories, they become part of Russia itself, and what has been a ‘special operation’ in Ukraine to defend the Donbas region and Russian-speakers in Ukraine now becomes a conflict—perhaps a war itself—to defend Russian territory,” Graham says.
Russia’s 1993 constitution set up the country to be a democratic republic, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country has frequent elections, but there has been a democratic backsliding in recent years. Putin’s authoritarian regime is plagued with documented corruption and human rights abuses that are upheld by controlled media and manipulated elections. Although this suppresses most political dissent, the illusion of fair elections is a long-standing tenant in Russian politics, according to research groups, such as the Brookings Institution.
How will voting work?
Sonin and Graham both explain that the referenda results will almost certainly be in huge favor of joining Russia—but that they will also be completely fabricated. “Basically since 2019, every election in Russia, they’re no longer representative of anything,” Sonin says.
Russia has a well-documented history of voter suppression. Sonin says, “this is not what real data looks like,” while describing Russia’s 2014 referendum in Crimea, a precursor to the territory’s annexation. The official tally was 96% of voters wanting to join Russia, with 83% of voters turning out.
“The data has artificially low variance. Basically, all the different precincts report similar turnout and similar outcomes,” Sonin says.
Logistically, experts tell TIME that the referenda will likely mirror Crimea’s 2014 referendum and be tightly controlled by the Russian military and have limited turnout, given that millions of residents evacuated these Russian-controlled Ukrainian territories once the conflict escalated.
“The authorities have hardly had any time to check the voter roll, to set up appropriate polling facilities (and) to ensure that electoral conditions are in place so that they can adjudicate any disputes,” Graham says.
Are the referenda a precursor to annexation?
Russia has not officially announced that it will be annexing any of these Ukrainian territories, but experts say the referenda are a sign that annexation may come next.
Annexation may be cause for celebration within Russia, Graham says, but “the international community won’t recognize this.” Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, have said that they will not recognize the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories.
If annexed, however, the way of life for Ukrainians in these occupied regions could change even more drastically overnight. “All Russian laws would now apply in these territories, they will move more rapidly to put in place Russian administrations,” Graham says.
“They’ve already changed the schooling over to the Russian curriculum. The goal is trying to make these regions legally and in practice look like a normal Russian region,” Graham adds.
Will it alter the war’s trajectory?
Ukraine has said that it will not back down in response to the referenda or threat of annexation. The country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that the referenda won’t stop Ukraine from continuing to “liberate its territories.” Sonin and Graham agree that this move is unlikely to change the war’s trajectory in any significant way.
However, one factor that will change if Russia legally recognizes parts of Ukraine as parts of the Russian Federation—even without any international recognition—is that the Russian doctrine on nuclear weapons would go into effect in these territories. This means that if Ukrainian forces attack Russian forces within those annexed territories, the Kremlin could view that as an attack on Russia itself, and have a legal basis to use nuclear force to defend itself.
That change could “deter the West from providing evermore sophisticated equipment in greater numbers to Ukraine—weaponry that Ukrainians used quite effectively on the battlefield,” Graham says.
Putin has been in power for 18 years, and has signaled that he intends to seek another term in 2024. The referenda probably won’t alter the war drastically, but suggests that Putin is going to do everything he can to win.