Prelude to a theft
Russia announced late Tuesday that four Ukrainian regions it partially controls have voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. These preordained outcomes were dismissed by Ukraine and Western nations as illegal sham referendums, thin pretexts for the bald theft of 15 percent of Ukraine's territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to announce plans to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson provinces on Friday, and Russia's parliament could vote on annexation legislation on Oct. 4.
Over four days of voting, "Ukrainians were alternately cajoled and bullied into casting ballots in referendums stage-managed by the Kremlin," The New York Times reports. "The Russian authorities and their proxies in Ukraine blended raw intimidation tactics," like armed men in ski masks, "with Orwellian messaging and a few stabs at festivities, among them thinly attended concerts on central squares."
Pro-Kremlin news sources report that approval in the four regions ranged from 87 percent in Kherson to 99 percent in Donetsk, percentages "that would be unusual in a vote of this nature," BBC News notes dryly. "Russian officials pre-ordained and falsified the approval ratings and alleged voter participation rates for the sham referenda while coercing Ukrainian civilians in occupied territories to performatively vote for Russian annexation," the Institute for the Study of War think tank assesses.
The referendum and annexations, even if recognized only by Syria and Nicaragua, would set up a new, more dangerous phase of Russia's invasion. Putin and other Russian officials have said Russia would consider annexed Ukrainian territory part of Russia and any attacks on those areas attacks on Russia. It would also, ISW notes, "enable the forced conscription of Ukrainian civilians into the Russian military in the normal autumn conscription cycle."
An estimated 200,000 Russian men have already fled Putin's draft, crossing into Kazakhstan, the European Union, or Georgia. Border guards are starting to crack down, handing conscription papers to men on a list.
Meanwhile, "the Ukrainian military offensive that ousted Russian troops from the Kharkiv region early this month has now crossed deep into the northern part of the nearby Donetsk region, increasingly threatening Russian control over lands that Moscow seeks to annex," The Wall Street Journal reports. Ukrainian forces are still on the defensive in parts of Donetsk, mostly fending off a mercenary-led attack on the city of Bakhmut, but Ukrainian forces continue their slow grind into Kherson province.