Referendums on joining Russia kick off in 4 Ukraine provinces

KYIV - Four areas of Ukraine controlled by Russia and pro-Moscow forces were preparing to hold referendums on Friday on joining Russia, votes widely condemned by the West as illegitimate and a precursor to illegal annexation.

Russian-installed leaders on Tuesday announced plans for the ballots, a challenge to the West that could sharply escalate the war.

The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favour of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have made clear they will not recognise the outcomes.

Voting in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to next Tuesday.

Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region Moscow partially occupied in 2014, to be independent states.

Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only around 60 per cent of Donetsk region in Russian hands.

Ukraine launched a counteroffensive earlier in September that has recaptured large swathes of territory, seven months after Russia invaded and launched a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and damaged the global economy.

The referendums had been discussed for months by the pro-Moscow authorities, but Ukraine's recent victories prompted a scramble by officials to schedule them.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing this week a military draft to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, Moscow appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the conflict.

Russia argues that it is an opportunity for people in the region to express their views.

"From the very start of the operation... we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week.

Ukraine says Russia intends to frame the referendum results as a sign of popular support, and use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognised.

By incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could justify military escalation as necessary to defend its territory. The vote in Crimea, criticised internationally as rigged, had an official result of 97 per cent in favour of formal annexation.

Mr Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would "use all the means at our disposal" to protect itself, an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. "This is not a bluff," he added.

The referendums have been denounced by world leaders including United States President Joe Biden, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Nato, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Mr Lavrov walked out of a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, where the US and its allies were criticising the Russian government over the invasion of Ukraine, in a stark demonstration of the divisions opened up by the war.

Mr Lavrov arrived at the meeting late, delivered his speech and left once it was done, refusing to stay for the speeches that accused Russia of committing war crimes and violating the UN Charter.

He reiterated the Kremlin's assertion that what it calls a "special military operation" was "inevitable" because the US and its allies sought to use Ukraine as a "base for creating and realising threats to Russian security".

Russia has also struggled to marshal support outside the Security Council. The General Assembly voted 101-7, with 19 abstentions, to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak by video link this week.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2022, with the headline Referendums on joining Russia kick off in 4 Ukraine provinces. Subscribe