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ILLEGAL REFERENDUMS IN FOUR RUSSIAN-OCCUPIED REGIONS IN UKRAINE

Matthew Bauer, Elvire Vérant, EUCOM Team

Justin Maurina, Claudia Santillan-Vazquez, Editor; Manja Vitasovic, Senior Editor

September 27, 2022

Regions where the Russian referendums are taking place[1]


Summary

Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson are voting on referendums to join Russia.[2] These four regions will almost certainly become internationally unrecognized regions of the Russian Federation. These territories’ annexation to Russia will put them under Russia’s nuclear doctrine,[3] with a roughly even chance of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons to counter Ukrainian counteroffensives. Russian authorities are forcing Ukrainian men in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson to fight against Ukraine.[4] This will likely spread to other Russia-controlled regions like Donetsk and Luhansk, very likely increasing enforcement of Ukrainian civilian enlistment post-annexation. Forced assimilation of Ukrainians in occupied regions is very likely after annexation, likely increasing the danger for Ukrainians opposing Russian and separatist authorities. There is almost no chance Western countries will recognize the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson region annexations, likely increasing sanctions against Russia.


Assessments


Armed Russian soldiers have reportedly gone door-to-door collecting referendum votes, indicating an unfair process.[5] Pro-independence Ukrainian citizens are hiding inside their homes, waiting for Russian officials to leave without them having to vote “under a gun barrel”.[6] Russia will almost certainly annex the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions, as the lack of adequate voting structure, equipment, and independent oversight will almost certainly allow Russian and separatist authorities to falsify the result. The vote’s outcome will unlikely reflect the Ukrainian population’s sentiment, as the seemingly unfair voting process will very likely intimidate pro-Ukraine inhabitants to stay silent due to retaliation fears.


Annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson would mean these regions become territories of the Russian Federation, allowing Russia to keep these territories under domestic control at all costs.[7] This enables Russia to protect these regions under its nuclear doctrine, giving Russia self-perceived legal ground to use nuclear weapons against threats.[8] The annexation of these four regions likely allows Russia to justify further measures to escalate the war, like broadening the mobilization of draftees and weapons to protect “Russians and Russian territory” without eroding public support. There is a roughly even chance that Russia will use tactical nuclear weapons to counter Ukrainian counteroffensive attempts in Russian-occupied regions, almost certainly creating a military capabilities imbalance as Ukraine does not possess nuclear weapons.[9]


Ukrainian civilians in two occupied regions, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, are forced to enlist to fight against Ukraine.[10] All men between 18 and 35 years old have to report for military duty and cannot leave the regions.[11] The forced enlistment will very likely spread to other Russian-occupied regions, like Donetsk and Luhansk, due to annexation. Forced enlistment of Ukrainian civilians will very likely escalate after the annexation of the four occupied regions with violence and threats. Russian and separatist authorities will likely gate-keep essential goods like food, water, and medication from protesting Ukrainian civilians, likely to coerce them to stop resistance.


Forced assimilation of Ukrainians is very likely after the annexation, as Russian and separatist authorities will likely take over the local government. Russians will likely force Ukrainian civilians to adopt the Russian language, culture, and education programs. Ukrainian civilians will likely protest Russian authority and assimilation in the annexed regions, likely increasing the risk of their torture, arbitrary arrests, deportations, neglect, and discrimination. Ukrainians opposing Russia will likely flee the occupied territories, likely increasing civilian casualties, as there is a roughly even chance that Russian authorities will stop the exiles using violence.


Alternatively, there is almost no chance Western countries like the US, UK, and United Nations (UN) countries will recognize Russia’s annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson as legitimate. The US, UK, and UN countries will almost certainly continue providing Ukraine with military supplies and training assistance so Ukraine can prevent a Russian offensive in the West of these regions. The US, UK, and UN will likely increase sanctions on Russia, likely until Russia surrenders control of these regions to Ukraine. European countries will very likely rely less on Russia for trade resources like gas and energy, likely increasing the financial harm to Russia. Sanctions and reductions in Russian gas purchases will likely decrease Russia’s economic growth, likely reducing jobs and economic opportunities for Russian citizens. Russian governmental protests will likely increase, likely demanding the Russian government to surrender the annexed regions back to Ukraine to reduce their financial hardships.


Future Implications

Russia’s very likely annexation of Ukrainian land will very likely escalate the Russia-Ukraine war due to Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat of nuclear retaliation. Putin will very likely appoint Russian political leaders to control the annexed regions, likely forcing Ukrainian citizens to assimilate to Russian politics, law, and culture and to fight against Ukraine. Many Ukrainian citizens in these regions will almost certainly resist assimilation and fight their people, likely protesting against Russia and attempting to flee to Ukrainian-controlled areas. The Ukrainian military will unlikely be able to continue their counteroffensives into these regions after the vote, given that Russia will likely view the regions as Russian land and would almost certainly fall under Russia’s nuclear doctrine. The Ukrainian government very likely lacks the military capabilities to restore sovereignty to Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, as the vote will almost certainly go in Russia’s favor.


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[1] Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine begin staged votes as the Kremlin denies reports of men fleeing partial mobilization, by Elvire Vérant, via Datawrapper

[2] Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine begin staged votes as the Kremlin denies reports of men fleeing partial mobilization, NBC, September 2022 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russian-ukraine-referendums-regions-fleeing-military-service-rcna49099

[3] Russia's Medvedev: new regions can be defended with strategic nuclear weapons, Reuters, September 2022

https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-medvedev-strategic-nuclear-weapons-can-be-used-defend-new-regions-2022-09-22/

[4] Russia-Ukraine War Russia Seeks to Force Ukrainians to Fight Their Countrymen, The New York Time, September 2022

https://www-nytimes-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.nytimes.com/live/2022/09/25/world/russia-ukraine-putin-news.amp.html?amp_gsa=1&amp_js_v=a9&usqp=mq331AQKKAFQArABIIACAw%3D%3D#the-kremlins-mobilization-effort-includes-forcing-ukrainians-to-fight-their-own-country=&ampshare=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2Flive%2F2022%2F09%2F25%2Fworld%2Frussia-ukraine-putin-news

[5] Ukraine "referendums": Soldiers go door-to-door for votes in polls, BBC, September 2022 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63013356

[6] With Kalashnikov rifles, Russia drives the staged vote in Ukraine, The Washington Post, September 2022

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/24/ukraine-putin-referendums/

[7] Russia's Medvedev: new regions can be defended with strategic nuclear weapons, Reuters, September 2022

https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-medvedev-strategic-nuclear-weapons-can-be-used-defend-new-regions-2022-09-22/

[8] Moscow "not threatening anyone" with nuclear weapons - Russia's Ryabkov, Reuters, September 2022

https://www.reuters.com/world/moscow-not-threatening-anyone-with-nuclear-weapons-russias-ryabkov-2022-09-23/

[9] Why Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons - and what that means in an invasion by Russia, NPR, February 2022

https://www.npr.org/2022/02/21/1082124528/ukraine-russia-putin-invasion

[10] Russia-Ukraine War Russia Seeks to Force Ukrainians to Fight Their Countrymen, The New York Time, September 2022

https://www-nytimes-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.nytimes.com/live/2022/09/25/world/russia-ukraine-putin-news.amp.html?amp_gsa=1&amp_js_v=a9&usqp=mq331AQKKAFQArABIIACAw%3D%3D#the-kremlins-mobilization-effort-includes-forcing-ukrainians-to-fight-their-own-country=&ampshare=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2Flive%2F2022%2F09%2F25%2Fworld%2Frussia-ukraine-putin-news

[11] Ibid

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