What next for Ukraine after annexation votes in Russian-occupied areas?

Kyiv says ‘sham’ referendums will change nothing and its forces will continue counter-offensive

Workers walk by destroyed houses in southern Ukraine following a missile strike in Mykolaiv on 29 August
Destroyed houses in Mykolaiv, near Kherson, after Russian missile strikes
(Image credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Local officials backed by the Kremlin will today begin holding “referendums” in four Ukrainian territories occupied by its troops to give grounds for President Vladimir Putin to absorb up to 15% of Ukraine into Russia.

The staged votes are taking place despite intense criticism from the West and a cool reception of the plan from Russia’s friends and allies.

Two areas that Putin recognised as independent before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the self-styled Donetsk and the Luhansk People’s Republics, as well as Russian-installed administrations in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, are holding snap votes on whether to join Russia or remain as part of Ukraine.

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Voting will begin today and end on Tuesday next week, according to Russian state-owned news agency Tass, with results expected immediately afterwards. Just as it did with Crimea in 2014, Russia intends formally to annex the areas in the aftermath of the results, which are widely expected to be pro-Russia.

How has the world reacted to the votes?

With his address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden “cast the war as part of a global contest between democracy and autocracy”, Reuters said, calling the votes in the four Ukrainian regions a “sham”, and insisting that “Ukraine has the same rights that belong to every sovereign nation”.

“We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine,” Biden added.

Even Russia’s friends and allies have expressed uncertainty about the vote, and the trajectory of the war in general. Turkey, which has previously sought to play a mediating role in the conflict, has condemned the vote as illegitimate.

And Putin admitted at a summit in Uzbekistan last week that Xi Jinping, president of China, and Indian PM Narendra Modi “had ‘concerns’ about the war” in Ukraine, said The New York Times.

Why are referendums being held now?

Kyiv recently mounted what The Economist called a “stunning counter-offensive”, liberating thousands of square kilometres of the occupied east of the country, including the strategically vital cities of Kupiansk and Izyum.

The victories appear to have prompted a scramble by Moscow to hold its referendums as quickly as possible, absorbing the territorial gains that had been made by its forces and making it harder for Ukraine to continue its counter-offensive to take back its land.

After annexing the territories, Moscow could declare Ukrainian attacks in those regions to be an assault on Russia itself, which The Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief Robyn Dixon says could become “a potential trigger for a general military mobilisation or a dangerous escalation, such as the use of a nuclear weapon”.

How will they go?

The results are seen as a “foregone conclusion in favour of annexation”, said The Guardian. Ukraine and its allies have already stated that they will not recognise the results, said the paper.

When Russia held a similar referendum in Crimea in 2014, it claimed 96.7% support for the region becoming part of Russia. But “a leaked report from Russia’s Human Rights Council said only around 30% had voted and barely half supported annexation”, said the BBC.

The logistics of the vote are themselves incredibly complicated. Many residents of the regions have already fled, and there are security concerns for those who remain being able to take part in a vote. Moscow has said it will take ballot boxes door-to-door in the southern city of Kherson to allow people to vote, while polling stations will open only on the last day, 27 September, said the BBC.

Meanwhile, Zaporizhzhia, where a vote is also due to take place, remains securely in Ukrainian hands. In the east, Donetsk is also only 60% under Russian occupation, raising yet more questions about the legitimacy of any referendum.

What will happen next?

The Kremlin’s hope is that “the West will baulk at having its weapons fired at land declared by Moscow as Russian”, the BBC said. Putin himself has spoken about using all means at his disposal “to protect Russia”.

To clarify the threat yet further, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, said “any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles” could be used to defend newly annexed territory.

Kyiv has insisted the vote will change nothing and its forces will continue to push to liberate all of its territory. Ukrainian defence ministry adviser Yuriy Sak told the BBC: “We are seeing that local populations are all in favour of returning to Ukraine, and this is why there’s so much guerrilla movement resistance in these territories.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told NPR that Russia simply won’t be able to run a proper vote in the territories. Rather, “it’s just propaganda for a domestic audience. The Russians want the battlefield to appear level.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.