Polls have closed in four Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine after four days of voting in referendums on their future status. Predictably, the results showed “overwhelming support” for joining Russia.
Tass, Russia’s state-owned news agency, has reported that early counting has revealed more than 97% of votes were cast in favour of the occupied regions joining the Russian Federation.
The very idea that people who lived under a hostile occupying power for months and in many cases were forced to participate in the vote have had a free choice, or that their choice mattered, is laughable even by Russian standards.
In 2014, Russia at least kept up some facade of a campaign in the equally illegal and shambolic Crimean referendum. This time, there were merely three days between the announcement of the referendums on September 20 and their start on September 23.
The referendums violate almost every conceivable democratic standard. Ballot boxes were reportedly carried from house to house to force people to cast their votes. There was an intimidating military presence in polling stations. No credible international observers were monitoring the vote in the occupied areas or in Russia or Crimea, where refugees from Ukraine have also been called upon to vote.
Given the increasingly precarious situation of Russian forces on the ground in Ukraine, the rush to cement a new status quo is understandable. In the Kremlin’s logic, once these territories have become part of Russia as a result of the referendums and an act of the Russian parliament – possibly as early as September 30 – they will enjoy Russia’s “full protection”.
To drive home this point, Putin ordered a partial mobilisation and threatened nuclear strikes. The former Russian president and now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, subsequently repeated this warning.
But, like many times before in this disastrous war, it is hard to see what – if anything – Putin is likely to gain. Ukrainian military operations to liberate the Russian-occupied territories continue. Potential conscripts are fleeing Russia en masse to neighbouring countries. In Russia itself, protests against mobilisation continue.
Countries otherwise considered relatively friendly with Russia, such as Kazakhstan, have already announced that they will not recognise the results of the illegal referendums. The UK, Canada and the European Union, meanwhile, are planning to put sanctions on individuals associated with organising them.
The United States is preparing another military support package for Ukraine worth US$1.1 billion (£1.03bn). Nato has warned Russia in no uncertain terms of “severe consequences” in case of a nuclear strike.
Putin’s strategic objectives
Despite all of these predictable consequences, the Kremlin carries on regardless. And despite multiple setbacks, Putin is holding on to some of the objectives that have been at the centre of his invasion of Ukraine since its very start at the end of February 2022.
Once it became clear to Russia that the self-declared so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk had lost their value of political leverage over Ukraine because Kyiv was unwilling to accept Moscow’s terms for a peace settlement in the east of the country, Putin opted for war to capture more of Ukraine’s territory.
This way, he was hoping to secure a durable land bridge to Crimea, potentially cutting off access to the Black Sea completely and connecting Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine to the Russian-controlled breakaway of Transnistria in Moldova.
There was always some degree of uncertainty over exactly how Russia’s well-established “de-facto state playbook” would play out in Ukraine. But the installation of some form of Russian-controlled administration in the occupied areas had always been part of that plan.
Moscow’s early withdrawal from Kyiv in April and now from Kharkiv indicates where the Kremlin puts the strategic emphasis of the aggression – in the Donbas and the southeast of Ukraine. These are areas where Russia is still making modest advances and where Ukraine’s liberation of occupied territories is progressing much more slowly.
Putin and his generals may not have much manpower and material resources left, but they use them in areas that make, from a Russian perspective, the most strategic sense.
Senseless human sacrifice
Holding the referendums in the territories currently controlled by Russia, therefore, fits into a strategy to shore up domestic support for an increasingly unpopular war at home. If nothing else, defending Russian territory – however ludicrous a notion that is with reference to Ukraine – makes it legally possible for Putin to use not only the reservists being currently mobilised, but also new conscripts due to arrive in Russian army barracks in the coming weeks and months as part of Russia’s regular autumn conscription cycle.
What Putin may achieve, at huge cost, is that these likely poorly trained and equipped soldiers will hold on to some of the territories now claimed as Russian as a result of the referendums. They will, though, no more turn the tide in the war decisively in Moscow’s favour as the referendums will persuade the international community that Russia is engaged in anything but the crime of aggression against Ukraine. The results of the referendums will not be accepted by any significant international actor. Western military support for Ukraine will not diminish and sanctions against Russia will not soften.
But the danger of further escalation remains, and with it the ever-increasing human and material costs of this senseless Russian war.