What will holding referenda mean for parts of Russia-occupied Ukraine and the world? | World News


Vladimir Putin has pledged his strong support for referendums to be held in parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces in the coming days.

They are to take place in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR) and in the Russian-occupied parts of the Cherson and Zaporizhia regions.

This could lead to Russia’s formal annexation of about 15% of Ukraine’s territory, an area slightly larger than Portugal.

The move comes eight years after a similar process in Russian-occupied Crimea, which Moscow says justified the annexation of the peninsula.

Russian troops, many acting incognito, invaded Crimea before local leaders allied with Moscow announced and then carried out a vote that many described as illegitimate and illegal.

It is feared that the most recently announced referendums will be similarly undemocratic.

Ukraine and Western countries have condemned the referendum plans as an illegal hoax and have made it clear that they will never accept their results.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the voting plans were “a parody”.

Officials wait for voters during the referendum on the status of Ukraine's Crimea region at a polling station March 16, 2014
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Officials wait for voters at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014

What is the precedent?

In February 2014, what were then described as mysterious little green men who looked to the world like Russian troops, but with no insignia on their uniforms, suddenly appeared on the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

While Crimea was ceded to Ukraine in Soviet times, it has an ethnically Russian majority, and some welcomed the invaders.

At the time, the Kremlin flatly denied that it was its troops or that it was in the process of annexing part of another European country.

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Ukraine was stunned, unable to act quickly or effectively enough to challenge the invaders.

Within days of the soldiers’ appearance, a new government had taken power – practically installed by the occupying powers – which then declared independence from Ukraine and said it would hold a referendum on the future of the territory.

The vote was decisive: 97% of the Autonomous Region of Crimea favored the integration of the territory into the Russian Federation with a turnout of 83% and within the local government of Sevastopol 97% for integration into Russia with a turnout of 89% voter turnout.

People wave Russian and Crimean flags as they wait for the announcement of the preliminary referendum results in Simferopol, capital of Crimea March 16, 2014
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The result was celebrated by many with people waving Russian and Crimean flags in the capital, Simferopol

Days later, Vladimir Putin declared that Crimea was now part of Russia, despite widespread condemnation from the rest of the world.

Ukraine’s government, new to power after the Maidan revolution, was outraged but lacked the military forces to drive Russia out of territories conceded to it under a series of international agreements.

The UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution invalidating the Moscow-backed referendum in Crimea, with 100 countries voting in favour, 11 against and 58 abstaining out of 193 nations, but little positive action was taken.

Many Western countries imposed sanctions, but Russia took them by the chin.

Events were quickly overtaken by separatists rising in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk demanding independence, with fighting erupting there keeping the Ukrainian military busy for the rest of the decade.

If Russia has learned a lesson, it is that annexation can be achieved if it acts in a way that limits any challenge.

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After the Crimea referendum, the Russian-backed separatist governments in Luhansk and Donetsk organized their own polls on the right to self-government, but amid fierce international criticism they failed to offer Russian integration as an option.

Election officials, accompanied by a police officer (L), arrive at a house with a mobile ballot box during a referendum in Crimea March 2014
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Election officials, escorted by a policeman, arrive at a house with a mobile ballot box during a referendum in Crimea in 2014

Why a referendum?

While the referendum in Crimea was widely condemned, the result was so decisive that Russia could claim that the territory’s population was in favor of joining the federation.

Referendums have been used extensively to determine the future of areas where a segment of the electorate is seeking independence, not least in Scotland in 2014.

The United Nations has supported referendums in many other countries seeking independence from others, such as South Sudan and East Timor, based on the fundamental principle of the right to self-determination.

But unlike Crimea, and likely the four Russian-occupied regions, many of these earlier referendums have been monitored by independent international observers to ensure they are held as fairly as possible.

While support for integration with Russia appears to have been strong, the results of Crimea’s referendum have been repeatedly questioned due to the absence of international observers and the speed of the process.

Critics say voter turnout is much lower than the 90 percent the Moscow-installed authorities claimed, and there is virtually no dissent over the threat of what human rights groups are calling a crackdown.

Vladimir Putin welcomed the result of the referendum in Crimea a year after it was held
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Vladimir Putin welcomed the result of the referendum in Crimea a year after it was held

What will happen?

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Several of the Russian-occupied territories had announced that they had planned referendums in the past, but have so far not been able to hold them.

This time, representatives of Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson said that the referendums will be held between Friday 23 September and Monday 27 September.

Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, as only around 60% of Donetsk region is in Russian hands, suggesting that only those in Russian-controlled areas are allowed to vote. Wartime conditions may limit people’s choices in many areas controlled by Moscow.

In the event of a majority in these four regions voting to join Russia – probably regardless of whether the vote is internationally considered legitimate – Mr Putin could well declare that they are now part of the Russian Federation.

what is the danger

If Moscow officially annexes an additional portion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is essentially challenging the United States and its European allies to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power.

Mr. Putin uses his nuclear arsenal as leverage.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine permits the use of such weapons when Russia faces an existential threat from conventional weapons or when weapons of mass destruction are used against Russia.

While there is no chance that the West will use nuclear weapons against Russia as a first strike, Ukraine has used conventional weapons to defend itself and has fired into Russian-held territory to cut off supply lines.

If these Russian-held territories are annexed and Mr Putin declares them part of Russia, any attack on the annexed territories could be interpreted as an attack on Russia.

This would provide Mr Putin with the potential pretext to use nuclear weapons in retaliation against Russia’s vast arsenal, which has more warheads than even the United States.

Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 and is now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said: “Invading Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all your forces of self-defense.”



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