Following the so-called annexation ‘referendums’ in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, all four Russian-installed governments have declared victory. The polls have been widely derided as a sham, with it being a foregone conclusion that the results would show that locals had voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia. Ukraine has claimed that Russia has used threats and intimidation tactics to coerce Ukrainians in the four regions, around 15 per cent of Ukraine, into voting in favour of annexation.
On Thursday, the Kremlin announced that the four southeastern territories would be incorporated into the Russian Federation. Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to sign treaties with Russian-appointed occupation officials on Friday. Ukraine and its allies have refused to accept the results of the so-called referendums. In 2014, Moscow adopted a similar process in Crimea as after Russian forces captured the territory, a farcical referendum was held, and Russia announced that 95% of voters wanted to join Russia. This led to Crimea’s annexation, which remains largely unrecognised by the international community.
The move to escalate the war and annex the four regions is a response to Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensive in the northeast in early September. Ukraine’s efforts were aided by advanced weaponry and military intelligence from its Western allies, which helped them to reclaim as much as 6,0000 square kilometres, including the city of Kharkiv. The counteroffensive led to a chaotic and panicked Russian retreat, which has shown its armed forces’ vulnerability and low morale.
After evidently being pushed into a corner, Putin responded by preparing to annex the southeastern territories, along with more sabre-rattling. In an address to the nation, he again made a thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons. Putin said Russia was willing to use “various weapons of destruction” and “use all the means available to us” while also adding, “I’m not bluffing.”
Putin also announced a partial mobilisation of Russia’s reservists, around 300,000 troops, to bolster its forces in Ukraine. The Russian president has previously resisted taking this measure due to fears of a social backlash. The announcement has had far-reaching consequences, with some of the largest anti-government demonstrations seen since the protests in support of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in January 2021.
Protests have been widespread in regional provinces with large ethnic-minority populations, such as Dagestan, where local folks are unhappy to be dragged into Putin’s war. A protest in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala on 25th September led to 101 arrests. Much of the anger is due to the growing feeling that Russia is disproportionately using minorities such as Tuvans, Buryats, Sakha, Kalmyks, Dagestanis and Chechens as cannon fodder in its war in Ukraine.
Furthermore, thousands of men of fighting age have fled for the borders, fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan, Finland and Georgia after receiving their draft papers. After Putin announced mobilisation, one-way direct flights from Moscow to cities allowing Russians visa-free entry, such as Istanbul and Baku, quickly sold out.
As its counteroffensive continues, Ukraine is now close to retaking territory in northeastern Donetsk, one of the regions that Moscow plans to annex. The annexation is intended to deter Ukraine’s efforts to take back the Russian-occupied part, and however, at present, the Ukrainian armed forces seem to be pressing ahead. Any additional successful efforts to liberate the occupied territories will blow further Russia as it grapples with the internal consequences of its profoundly unpopular mobilisation push.
By Jack Seal