1. Where are the referendums held?
Referendums will be held in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia over a five-day period. The four regions make up about fifteen percent of all of Ukraine, the size of Portugal. The Russian troops have occupied part of the areas.
But none of them are completely in the hands of Russia. Defense expert Rob de Wijk told RTL Z that it is an emergency move by Putin: “He is now doing this as quickly as possible, so that he does not lose these areas to Ukraine.”
Ukrainian troops are on the rise. For example, the city of Izhum was recently liberated, which is close to the area where the referendums are now being held. Earlier this week, President Zelensky announced his intentions to liberate cities such as Kherson, Mariupol and Melitopol.
2. What is the referendum about?
The referendum is about whether the inhabitants of the chosen areas want to join Russia. It is a similar referendum as Russia previously held in Crimea in 2014. 96.6 percent of voters would then have voted to join Russia.
The outcome of that referendum was soon called into question. 60 percent of the inhabitants of the peninsula are of Russian descent. The turnout in the referendum was 80 percent, while a large part of the non-Russian population had expressed their intention to boycott the referendum.
De Wijk therefore calls Russia’s newly announced referendum a fake: “We know that things like this never happen openly and honestly in Russia. It is an old tradition there to manipulate referendums and elections.”
3. Why now?
The war in Ukraine is currently not going in the right direction for President Putin. Previously conquered territories are being reclaimed by Ukrainian troops, there is too little manpower to fight against the motivated Ukrainian soldiers and there is an increasing public criticism of the war at home.
That is why President Putin announced a partial mobilization earlier this week: 300,000 reservists have been called up to fight at the front. If the four mentioned areas become part of Russia through the referendum, Putin can position these reservists in the areas and then defend them.
After Putin announced a partial mobilization, thousands of people took to the streets:
If through this referendum the areas ‘officially’ become part of Russia, then the areas will fall under Russian territory. According to De Wijk, it will then become dangerous. “If Ukraine then tries to retake these areas, which they have already indicated they will do, Russia will see it as an attack on Russian territory. According to Russian military doctrine, that is a reason to use nuclear weapons.”
It is also a deterrent for Putin. “It will be months before those 300,000 reservists are installed in the four areas. Until then, Russia is vulnerable. So Putin can only threaten with nuclear weapons.”
But switching to nuclear weapons would not be an easy choice for Putin either: “Putin then becomes a total pariah in the rest of the world. But the trade-off is: become a pariah or go off in Ukraine. And that is something Putin certainly does not want to do.” So the deployment of nuclear weapons is a real option.”
4. How is the West reacting to the referendum?
Several world leaders have already said they will not accept the outcome of the referendum. French President Macron called Putin’s decision a parody: “If the situation wasn’t so tragic, you could laugh about it.” According to the German Chancellor Scholz, these are ‘sham referendums that do not hold up in international law’. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he will never recognize the referendum as legal.
Our Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra also responded: “The Netherlands strongly condemns the fake referendums in Eastern Ukraine and the partial military mobilization in Russia. It is crucial to continue our support for Ukraine: more sanctions, more weapons, more aid. We must do everything we can to help Ukraine stop Putin’s bloodshed.”
The question now is how the West will react if Russia still annexes the areas through the referenda. According to De Wijk, there are three options. “We can continue as it is, try to pressure Zelensky to renegotiate with Russia, or stop arms supplies altogether.”
According to De Wijk, the first choice is the most logical. But it’s not an easy choice either. Because the sanctions that Putin is spreading over the West are indeed tangible. The gas tap is being turned off further and further and Europe is immediately feeling the effect. “It is also a bit of a question: who will remain stable the longest. Russia or the West?”
5. What can Ukraine do about the referenda?
Ukraine says that nothing really changes for them. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that they are continuing to conquer their territories. “Russia is and remains an aggressor illegally occupying territories of Ukraine. Ukraine has the right to conquer its own territories and will continue to conquer them. No matter what Russia says.”
Although there is still a vote to be taken, it is already clear what the outcome of the referenda will be. It remains uncertain how the protagonists in this war will react to that outcome.