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Putin Stages ‘Votes’ to Annex Occupied Ukrainian Territories

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 9/23/2022 Bloomberg News

(Bloomberg) -- Russia on Friday began staging UN-condemned “referendums” to annex the roughly one-fifth of neighboring Ukraine it occupies, marking a new escalation in the war and the spiraling conflict between President Vladimir Putin and the US and its allies.

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The votes are a “violation of the UN Charter and international law,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. 

The Kremlin ordered the ballots after its forces suffered their worst defeats to Ukraine’s military since the early weeks of the seven-month-long invasion. Putin this week also called for a “partial mobilization” to draft 300,000 reservists. 

He stepped up his threats toward Ukraine’s US and European allies, saying he’s ready to use Russia’s entire military arsenal to protect its “territorial integrity” which would extend to the newly-seized regions. 

The annexation votes mean “Russia is burying the prospects of negotiations with its own hands,” Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address late Thursday. Peace talks have been moribund for months.

There’s no suspense over the outcome of balloting that occupation authorities said would last for five days, with state media reporting immediately that support for annexation would run from between nearly 90% to almost 100%. 

Russian troops don’t fully control the territory of any of the four regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk where the votes are being held and fighting is raging in all of them. 

Assessed Control of Terrain in Ukraine | © Bloomberg Assessed Control of Terrain in Ukraine |

In Moscow, officials said they’d move quickly to finalize absorption of the territories into Russia. Regional authorities across the country also staged rallies Friday to try to show popular enthusiasm for the annexations, even as thousands of men receive call-up papers that bring the war much closer to home for Russians.  

Pre-war polling data showed only about a fifth of people in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions favored joining Russia, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology said on its website, citing results of its studies from 2021-2022. “The only way to unite these regions with Russia based on referenda is to falsify their results,” it said.

Threats Condemned

The US and Europe denounced Putin’s latest nuclear threats as a further sign of Kremlin desperation alongside the referendums and the mobilization order. They vowed to continue financial and military support for Kyiv as it presses on with a counteroffensive to reclaim territory seized by Russia in eastern and southern Ukraine. 

Despite the UN’s denunciation, Russian officials defended the votes as in line with international law. Russia conducted a similar hasty referendum in Crimea in 2014 after it occupied that peninsula from Ukraine but only a tiny number of countries have followed Moscow’s lead in recognizing the results.

The Kremlin’s proxy leaders made little pretense about the exercise. Kirill Stremousov, a top occupation official in Kherson, said “A massive majority has decided their fate -- life inside Russia,” in a video address on Telegram. The head of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, proclaimed: “We’re coming home!” 

Why Ukraine’s Donbas Region Matters to Putin: QuickTake

Still, Pushilin late Thursday warned that the security situation was worsening drastically in the north of the region as Ukrainian forces advance, even as he called on residents to vote.

Election officials accompanied by armed troops were going house-to-house to collect ballots, with polling set to conclude on Sept. 27.

The Kremlin is also distributing hundreds of thousands of ballots within Russia for people it said were dislocated from the regions. Authorities have said they’ll use electronic voting as well, a technique that’s been implicated in widespread fraud when applied in Russia.

The referendums on expanding Russia’s self-declared sovereignty in Ukraine means “we’ve reached the point of no return,” said Alexei Chesnakov, a former senior Kremlin official and adviser on Ukraine policy. “It’s already impossible to go back. Putin is showing the West that we’re ready to go all the way.”

The mobilization of reservists, which has prompted a rush to leave the country by men who face the draft, isn’t enough to change the balance of forces and will only help to stop the Ukrainian advance, according to Russian military experts. Moscow’s forces have been plagued by low morale and equipment shortages. 

Putin’s Conscripts Won’t Win His War But May Drag It Out

The Kremlin is counting on disruptions of energy supplies over the winter to pressure Europe to get Kyiv to sue for peace. But support for Ukraine has only strengthened since the battlefield gains and Russia’s escalation in response.

Neither side in the conflict is ready to back down, which increases the risks that tensions may spin out of control, said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

“Russia knows it is losing,” he said. “If you lose, you either seek a reasonable exit or you can threaten to go further and further.” 

(Updates with polling details in sixth paragraph, rallies in eighth)

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