Four occupied regions in Ukraine have overwhelmingly voted to join Russia, pro-Moscow officials claimed Tuesday, in what the West has called “sham” referendums.
Held in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, where the war in Ukraine has been focused for months, the referendums took place between Sept. 23 and Sept. 27.
According to Russia-installed election officials, 93 per cent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87 per cent in the Kherson region, 98 per cent in the Luhansk region and 99 per cent in Donetsk.
Many Western leaders, though, have denounced the votes’ legitimacy and noted they are following the same playbook as was done in Crimea in 2014, when Russia annexed the area through a similar referendum — and are warning the votes could be a pretext for escalation.
Here’s what could happen next.
U.S. President Joe Biden has called the referendums a “sham,” and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denounced their legitimacy as well.
“We will never recognize them,” Trudeau had said in a tweet Sept. 20, after the referendums were announced. “This is a blatant violation of international law. It is a further escalation of war. And it is unacceptable.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Wednesday called the ballots “illegal” and described the results as “falsified.”
“This is another violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty (and) territorial integrity, (amid) systematic abuses of human rights,” Borrell tweeted.
Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday to the UN Security Council via video link that Ukrainians have been forced to fill out papers while threatened by weapons, and fears Russia may try to conscript the male population of the areas that may be annexed.
As the referendums were carried out by Moscow-backed officials, reports came in of votes being coerced, with soldiers with rifles going door-to-door with ballot boxes, according to the United Kingdom’s Deputy UN Ambassador, James Kariuki. He called the voting taking place in a war zone “farcical” in a speech to the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
“Any referenda held under these conditions, at the barrel of a gun, can never be remotely close to free or fair,” Kariuki said.
Russian officials have insinuated that the annexation of the areas of Ukraine could legitimize an escalation in the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said days before the referendums began that his country was prepared to use “any means” to defend itself.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said in a seven-minute televised address on Sept. 21.
“It’s not a bluff.”
Western officials have taken those means to include nuclear weapons, an interpretation that has been backed up by Russian officials.
Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said earlier on social media after the referendums were announced that “encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence.”
Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday after the balloting that the situation in the war “will radically change.”
Some in the West have characterized the potential escalation of the war as a reaction of a cornered Putin, including Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly.
Speaking to reporters in New York on Sept. 22, she said as Putin becomes more isolated, the West “can’t be naïve” about his threats. The first step is making sure the international community is united in condemning the referendums to not give them legitimacy and remove a pretext for escalating the war, Joly said.
“We have to be very careful.”
Biden urged Putin not to use tactical nuclear or chemical weapons in the wake of setbacks in the war, in a CBS News interview on Sept. 18.
Trudeau has said that Putin’s “nuclear threats represent an irresponsible and dangerous escalation.”
“Tactical nuclear weapons” have a much lower payload and are meant to be used in combat rather than on the enemy’s home territory, such as the “strategic” nuclear bombs used at the end of the Second World War.
Russian government officials have dismissed Western suggestions that Moscow would use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. They have never before been used in battle and would represent a major escalation of the war, taking the world into previously unseen territory.
Already, the U.S. has met Putin’s threats with its own if he were to take such a step.
“If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia,” U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC’s Meet the Press television program on Sept. 25.
“The United States will respond decisively.”
Putin is expected to address Russia’s parliament about the referendums on Friday. Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the body’s upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on Oct. 4.
If the annexation does go through, Zelenskyy said Tuesday that there will be “nothing to talk about with this president of Russia.” Peace talks have periodically been held during the war, with Zelenskyy insisting on no territory losses.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said late Tuesday that Washington would propose a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Russia’s “sham” vote.
The resolution would also urge member states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and demand that Russia withdraw its troops from its neighbour, she tweeted.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry asked the EU, NATO and the Group of Seven major industrial nations in a statement to “immediately and significantly” step up pressure on Russia through new sanctions, and significantly increase their military aid to Ukraine.
Joly said last week more sanctions against Russia are coming “very soon.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, has remained resolved in its mission to fight off Russia, regardless of the results of the referendums. Zelenskyy said that his goal is still to recapture its territory, and that he views the recent moves as demonstrative of Russian setbacks on the battlefield.
“We will act in accordance with our plans, step by step,” said Zelenskyy in a recent video interview with the German newspaper Bild. “I am certain we will liberate our territory.”
— with files from the Associated Press
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