Europe Politics

Fake referendums in occupied Ukraine set the stage for annexation — and immense danger for Ukraine

Key Points
  • The results from a series of so-called referendums that have taken place in occupied parts of Ukraine have predictably shown a resounding majority voting to join Russia.
  • The votes set the stage for Moscow to announce the annexation of those regions and their incorporation into the Russian Federation in the coming days.
  • That, analysts say, marks a point of great danger in the war for Ukraine.
  • Russia has warned it has a "right" to use nuclear weapons to "defend" its territory and citizens.
Election commission members count votes of refugees from Russian-held regions of Ukraine for a referendum at a polling station in Simferopol, Crimea, on Sept. 27, 2022.
Stringer | Afp | Getty Images

The results from a series of so-called referendums that have taken place in occupied parts of Ukraine —which predictably show a resounding majority voting to join Russia — set the stage for Moscow to announce their annexation in the coming days.

That, analysts say, could mark a dangerous point in the war for Ukraine with the possibility that Russia could turn to unconventional weapons, even nuclear weapons, to "defend" what it will then say is its territory and citizens.

"As for the risk of Russia using these votes and subsequent annexation of those territories as a pretext for nuclear strikes — we are conscious of this risk, we understand that it is real," Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine's Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told CNBC Wednesday.

"Even if Russia's leader is himself crazy enough to contemplate or even consider conducting a nuclear strike on Ukrainian territory, hopefully not all those people who surround him are that crazy. But again, this is not something we can count on so we, as Ukraine, have to be prepared for the worse and the international community has to be prepared not to budge, not to cave to this nuclear blackmail."

Putin pushes annexation while wielding nuclear threat
Putin pushes annexation while wielding nuclear threat

President Vladimir Putin and other top officials in Moscow have frequently warned that Russia could use nuclear weapons if it feels there is an existential threat to the Russian Federation.

Just on Tuesday Putin ally and former President Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Telegram that Russia had a "right" to use nuclear weapons "if aggression with the use of conventional weapons threatens the very existence of our state."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), accompanied by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, oversees the 'Vostok-2022' military exercises at the Sergeevskyi training ground outside the city of Ussuriysk on the Russian Far East on September 6, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images

Medvedev once again repeated Moscow's false mantra that Ukraine was being controlled by NATO countries and said "we will do everything to prevent the appearance of nuclear weapons in our hostile neighbors," adding that "they understand that if the threat to Russia exceeds the established danger limit, we will have to respond."

Those comments came after Putin said last week that the Kremlin will "certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It is not a bluff."

Annexation expected

The referendums, widely described as a "sham" by the international community, are seen as having created a pretext for Russia to annex the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south and pro-Russian, separatist "republics" in Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The regions amount to around 15% of Ukraine's territory.

A woman attends a referendum at a mobile voting station in Mariupol on September 25, 2022.
- | Afp | Getty Images

Results from the referendums, in which coercive and illegal voting practices were widespread (electoral officials reportedly went door-to-door to force and collect votes), showed that between 87% and 99% of residents in those regions had voted to join the Russian Federation. The results are widely seen as rigged and Ukraine and its Western allies have denounced the votes and refuse to recognize them.

In a statement Wednesday, Ukraine's foreign ministry said "forcing people in these territories to fill out some papers at the barrel of a gun is yet another Russian crime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine" and said the occupied regions remained Ukraine's sovereign territory.

Calling on the international community to condemn Russia's latest act of aggression and immediately hit Moscow with more sanctions in a bid to stop the annexation, Ukrainian Foreign Minster Dmytro Kuleba said on Facebook that "you cannot stop the annexation with words of deep concern and personal sanctions — serious steps are needed."

For Russia's part, it says it just wants to "protect" Russian citizens and ethnic Russians living in occupied regions — having itself set up a process of "Russification" of occupied or separatist areas with the handing out of Russian passports and promotion of Russian culture and education.

On Tuesday, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, said that Russia would "bring peace" to the Donbass and would invest and develop the region and other territories, as he claimed Russia had done in Crimea (which was also annexed in 2014 after a falsified referendum).

The results of sham referenda in occupied territories in Ukraine.

It's now expected that Putin, who is expected to address Russia's Duma, or lower house of parliament, on Friday, could announce then that the occupied regions are being incorporated into the Russian Federation.

Russian news agency Tass reported that the Duma may even debate bills incorporating Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine into Russia as early as Thursday. While another official, Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the parliament's upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on Oct. 4, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Federica Reccia, Russia and CIS analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted Tuesday that "Russia is racing to consolidate its positions in Ukraine and integrate Ukraine's south-eastern regions as quickly as possible."

"Annexing these regions would provide Russia with a pretext to redesignate them as 'de jure' Russian territories, giving Russia a justification to retaliate with disproportionate force against any attacks on them," she said in emailed comments.

"Annexing these territories will open up a very dangerous phase in the conflict, potentially increasing the risk of bringing NATO closer to a confrontation with Russia," she noted.

Danger for Putin too

Putin is no doubt eager to bring the conflict in Ukraine to a conclusion as soon as possible. Looking to overwhelm Ukraine's effective counter-attacking forces, Putin last week resorted to a military mobilization, calling-up around 300,000 reservists to be sent to the frontline, a move that prompted many eligible fighting men to try to flee the draft.

The U.K.'s Ministry of Defence said Tuesday that Russia's leaders "almost certainly hope that any accession announcement will be seen as a vindication of the 'special military operation' and will consolidate patriotic support for the conflict."

"This aspiration will likely be undermined by the increasing domestic awareness of Russia's recent battlefield sets-backs and significant unease about the partial mobilisation announced last week."

For all the Kremlin's saber-rattling over nuclear weapons, there are a number of analysts that remain skeptical as to whether, in the end, Putin would actually resort to using them, noting that he has purposefully cultivated an enigmatic persona.

"He has spent 15 years cultivating an image of himself as this unpredictable figure who, like a rat in a corner, might strike out in ways we don't foresee or ways we see as irrational," John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told CNBC Wednesday.

"It's a classic KGB [the main security agency for the Soviet Union for whom Putin worked before entering politics in the late 1990s] ploy" he said. "Putin is a master psychologist."

Putin's regime is at its 'shakiest,' says former U.S. ambassador
Putin's regime is at its 'shakiest,' says former U.S. ambassador

Herbst said that Putin was losing friends and alienating his remaining allies, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian President Narendra Modi, as the war dragged on and that his military mobilization had left him isolated and criticized on a domestic level.

As such, rhetoric around the use of nuclear weapons had its use for an increasingly desperate Putin looking to strike fear into the West.

"He is trying to make the notion that he might use nuclear weapons as his [way] out of this crisis. He wants to make sure the U.S. and NATO don't send more weapons to Ukraine so the Ukrainian counteroffensive doesn't continue," Herbst noted.

"We cannot rule out something irrational on Putin's part but it would be extremely dangerous for him and for Russia."

Ukrainian official Yuriy Sak said Kyiv hoped that Russian fear of a reprisal from the West would stop it from going too far.

"Russia has been using nuclear blackmail since day one of this aggression, their propaganda machine is talking about this on a daily basis. At the same time, we have heard the leaders of the free world, the G-7 and U.S. say that, should this God forbid happen, Russia will face very severe consequences and we hope that this will serve as a deterrent," he said.