After four Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans to hold referendums on joining Russia later this week, Western leaders slammed the Russian plans, denouncing the referendums as a sham at the United Nations meeting in New York, on Tuesday.
In what appeared to be a coordinated move, the Moscow-back leaders of the Donetsk, Luhanks, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing around 15% of Ukrainian territory, announced plans to hold referendums to decide whether or not to join Russia. The votes are scheduled between September 23 – 27.
The US, Germany and France have said they would never recognise the results of such “sham” ballots. The NATO military alliance said the plans were a clear escalation in the war.
Ukraine and the United States have said such referendums would be an illegal sham and have made clear that they and many other countries would not recognise the results.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the United States would never recognise the votes, which he called “an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz excoriated Russia for its “sham”, while French President Emmanuel Macron called them a “parody” of democracy.
“If the Donbas referendum idea wasn’t so tragic it would be funny,” Macron told the media.
The Russian moves came after a very successful Ukrainian offensive in the northeastern sector in Kharkiv province, which resulted in Russian forces being evicted from roughly 8,000 sq kilometres of territory and restoring the entirety of Kharkiv province to Ukrainian control.
Why is the move seen as an escalation?
If the separatist regions vote to join Russia — a conclusion that seems foregone — then Moscow would be able to claim the annexed territory as sovereign Russian soil. Given that Russia possesses a vast nuclear arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons, the implications are stark.
Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is currently deputy chairman of the Security Council, suggested before the announcements that the outcome of such votes would be irreversible and give Moscow the right to defend what it would regard as legally its own territory.
“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence,” Medvedev said in a post on Telegram. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.”
No future Russian leader would be able to constitutionally reverse their outcome, he added.
He might be mistaken about that — after all, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself signed an executive order on July 3, 2020 to officially insert amendments into the Russian Constitution, allowing him to run for two additional six-year terms. These amendments took effect on July 4, 2020.
It is feared that these moves by Moscow to annex the territories it holds in Ukraine will lead to the intensification of an already bloody war.
Notably, Russia has already held a referendum in the strategically important Crimea in 2014, following which Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.