Four occupied Ukraine regions prepare to vote on joining Russia

Referendums are due to get underway on Friday, in votes seen as paving the way for an escalation of the war.

Four areas of Russian-occupied Ukraine are preparing to hold referendums, which are seen as paving the way for the formal annexation of some 15 percent of Ukrainian territory and have been condemned as illegitimate by Kyiv.

Voting in Luhansk and Donetsk, self-proclaimed “independent republics” controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, as well as southern Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces will begin on Friday and continue until September 27.

The Russian-installed leaders of the four areas abruptly announced the plans on Tuesday after a lightning Ukraine counteroffensive recaptured swathes of territory that Russia had occupied after invading the country on February 24.

The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favour of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made clear they will not recognise the results.

A similar referendum, held in Crimea after the Russian invasion of 2014, found 97 percent in favour of formal annexation in a vote that took place under the close watch of Russian soldiers and was not recognised by the international community.

The votes are seen as a significant escalation of the seven-month-old war in Ukraine — in which thousands have been killed and millions displaced — because incorporation would allow Moscow to claim that it was defending its territory.

“If this is all declared Russia territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian TV.

The referendums have been condemned by the United Nations and world leaders, including United States President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as international bodies such as NATO, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

A series of clear ballot boxes laid out on a table at a polling station with members of the local electoral commission in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic sitting behind.
Voting is due to start on Friday in the referendums, which have been condemned as illegitimate by Kyiv. There will be no outside observers to ensure the vote is free and fair [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

OSCE, which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal force because they do not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and the areas are not secure.

There will be no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.

Polling stations in Zaporizhzhia will be under heavy guard, local officials told the RIA news agency.

“This is all a sham. This is all a charade being orchestrated by Putin,” Kurt Volker, who was US special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019 and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think this has any impact on the situation on the ground and won’t change Ukrainian determination to recover and recapture territories. Nor will it harm the determination in the West to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression.”

Ukraine has said the referendums were a sign of Russia’s weakness rather than strength.

A day after the referendums were announced, Putin ordered a mobilisation of reservists to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, and declared he was ready to use nuclear weapons to fend off any attacks on Russian territory.

“Any decision that the Russian leadership may take changes nothing for Ukraine,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.

“Of interest to us are strictly the tasks before us. This is the liberation of our country, defending our people and mobilising world support [public opinion] to carry out those tasks.”