Understanding Russia’s planned referendum in Ukraine

Russian-backed separatists plan to hold referendums in the occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, a move that has triggered a chorus of condemnation from Western leaders.

The vote will pave the way for the formal annexation of swaths of territory by Russia after nearly seven months of the war with its neighbour, a former Soviet republic.

Who wants a referendum?

The self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which President Vladimir Putin recognised as independent states just before the invasion on February 24, have said they want referendums on joining Russia from September 23 to 27 – that is from this Friday to Tuesday.

The Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, which are yet to be recognised as independent states by Russia, have also said they will hold their own votes.

Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only about 60 percent of the Donetsk region in Russian hands.

How much territory could Ukraine lose?

Russia controls more than 90,000sq km (34,750sq miles) of territory, or about 15 percent of Ukraine’s total area – roughly the size of Hungary or Portugal.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. With Crimea and the territory in the four other regions, Russia would gain an area about the same size as the US state of Pennsylvania.

What’s the significance?

If Russia goes ahead with the referendums and includes the four regions in Russia, then Ukraine – and potentially its Western backers too – would, from a Russian perspective, be fighting against Russia itself.

That would raise the risk of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the NATO military alliance, a scenario that President Joe Biden has said could lead to World War III, because NATO members are supplying arms and giving intelligence to Ukraine.

As such, a rushed Russian move to formally annex another big chunk of Ukrainian territory would be a major escalation just days after potentially the most significant Russian battlefield defeat of the war in northeastern Ukraine.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows the use of such weapons if it is attacked with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.

While escalating the stakes of the confrontation, Putin could also announce additional steps.

Russian stocks plunged to their lowest in a month on Tuesday as Moscow reignited martial law fears with new legislation that tightened penalties for military personnel.

Unless Ukraine agreed to stop fighting for its lost territory, Russia would have to commit significant military forces to defend the newly annexed regions – which are still not fully under Russian control.

“Putin has made a bet on escalation,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R.Politik.

“All this talk about immediate referendums is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West.”

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What does Ukraine say?

Ukraine said the threat of referendums was “naive blackmail” and a sign Russia was running scared.

“This is what the fear of defeat looks like. The enemy is afraid, and obfuscates primitively,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: “The Russians can do whatever they want. It will not change anything.”

Ukraine says it will not rest until every Russian soldier is ejected from its territory. Kyiv says it will never accept Russian control over its territory and has called on the West to supply more and better arms to fight Russian forces.

What happened in Crimea?

The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution.

After Russian forces on February 27, 2014 took control of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and was transferred to Ukraine in Soviet times, a referendum on joining Russia was held on March 16.

Crimea’s leaders declared a 97 percent vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Russia formally added Crimea on March 21, less than a month after the invasion.

Kyiv and the West said the referendum violated Ukraine’s constitution and international law.

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