A Ukrainian soldier rides on a car after fetching water from a community well at the liberated village in Troitske, Kharkiv region, on September 18, 2022.
Yasuyoshi Chiba Afp | Getty Images
Ukrainian officials dismissed plans by Russian-occupied parts of the country to hold referenda on whether to join the Russian Federation, saying the move is “doomed to fail,” while analysts see the votes as an escalation by Moscow as Kyiv’s counteroffensive continues.
Russia’s proxy leaders and officials installed in occupied parts of the country made a series of announcements Tuesday, calling for immediate votes on joining Russia.
Those announcements came ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order Wednesday of a “partial mobilization” which included military reserves being called up into active service, and increased government funding for weapons production.
The referenda, which are due to take place over the coming weekend, will be held in two self-proclaimed “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbas region as well as occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.
The votes — whose results are widely expected to be rigged and to favor becoming a part of Russia — are widely seen as a way for Russia to annex more parts of Ukraine and to be able to justify the “defense” of what it could then claim was “Russian territory,” even though most of the international community would not recognize the legitimacy of the votes, or the results.
Needless to say, Russia’s latest attempts to annex more parts of Ukraine, and to try to lend legitimacy to such an act by staging referenda to do so, has been met with international condemnation, starting from Kyiv.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed the “noisy news” and announcements regarding the referendum, saying Ukraine had heard it all before.
“Today there is quite noisy news coming from Russia. And there are many questions about it. But what actually happened? What was heard that we have not heard before,” he said in his nightly address, while Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called any referenda a “sham” that would not stop Ukraine from its aim of liberating its territories.
Reiterating Kuleba’s position, Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told CNBC that such “fake” votes are “doomed to fail” for several reasons.
“This is the desperate, face-saving attempt which they’re trying to use to compensate for the humiliation that they have suffered on the battlefield as a result of the Ukrainian army’s counter offensive, both in Kharkiv region and in Kherson,” he told CNBC Tuesday.
“The second point is that, regardless of what they do, this will not stop the Ukrainian army and this will not be recognized by any members of the international community.”
“The third, very important point is that local populations in the temporarily-occupied territories — and we’re seeing it now as we are de-occupying these territories — they are not supportive of the occupants. They’re not supportive of the aggressor So these fake referendums are doomed to fail, from whatever angle or aspect you look at it,” he said.
Why are the votes happening?
As the votes were announced in tandem on Tuesday, analysts questioned whether Moscow could be about to announce a mobilization of the Russian people, putting Russia firmly on a war footing and opening the door to the possible conscription of Russian men of fighting age to be sent. to Ukraine.
That speculation was borne out Wednesday as Putin announced the partial mobilization of the Russian nation, while again blaming the West for the war in Ukraine and saying Russia had “lots of weapons to respond” to what he said were threats from the West.
Putin’s latest move came after the debate among politicians and pro-Putin commentators regarding mobilization had become louder in recent weeks with pressure building on the Kremlin to throw more weight (and personnel and weapons) behind the “special military operation” in Ukraine, particularly after Kyiv’s successes on a lightning counteroffensive in the northeast in the Kharkiv region and south of the country in Kherson.
The counterattack in Kharkiv has been particularly successful, with Ukraine’s forces driving out almost all Russian troops from the region; in Kherson, the situation is more complex as Russian forces are more deeply entrenched in and around the port city and wider region, and in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and where it similarly held a sham referendum to try to legitimize its annexation.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia supported the referendum and said that the decision to partially mobilize was “fully adequate to the threats we face, namely to protect our homeland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, to ensure the security of our people and people in the liberated territories.”
The forthcoming votes would enable the Kremlin to claim, albeit falsely, that it was “defending” its own territory and citizens, and that will require more manpower.
Ukraine’s Western allies have already confirmed the results of any vote would be seen as illegitimate.
The EU said any results could not be considered “the free expression of the will of the people” in those regions while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented Tuesday that “the sham referenda, the potential mobilization of additional forces isn’t a sign of strength. On the contrary, it’s a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of Russian failure.”
Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, called the referendum an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. He said Biden, in his speech on Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, will issue a “firm rebuke” to Russia for its war against Ukraine.
More combat power
The UK’s Ministry of Defense’s latest intelligence update, released Wednesday morning, said that the urgency behind such votes was likely due to Russian fears “of imminent Ukrainian attack [on occupied areas] and an expectation of greater security after formally becoming part of Russia.”
Still, the ministry noted that Russian forces in Ukraine continue to experience personnel shortages and that a vote in the Russian Duma on Tuesday to tighten up Russia’s criminal code around military service — including increasing the punishment for desertion and other “crimes committed in conditions of mobilization , martial law, armed conflicts and hostilities” — was likely intended to limit the number of refusals to fight, and designed to mitigate some of the immediate personnel “pressures.”
“The Russian civilian and military leadership has faced significant pressure over the last two weeks. These new measures have highly likely been brought forward due to public criticism and mark a further development in Russia’s strategy,” the ministry said.
“Putin is accepting greater political risk by undermining the fiction that Russia is neither in a war nor a national crisis in the hope of generating more combat power,” the ministry said.