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Russia’s sham votes in occupied Ukraine are a way for Vladimir Putin to threaten nuclear strikes

The i 28/09/2022 Serina Sandhu
Referendum committee members empty a ballot box to start counting them, at a polling station during a referendum in Luhansk (Photo: AP) © Provided by The i Referendum committee members empty a ballot box to start counting them, at a polling station during a referendum in Luhansk (Photo: AP)

Russia’s so-called referenda on breaking-away Ukrainian regions are a way to raise nuclear uncertainty in the West, security experts have said.

Moscow is on the cusp of annexing large areas of Ukraine after claiming four provinces, which are either fully or partially occupied, voted overwhelmingly to separate and join Russia in Kremlin-organised referenda.

The results, condemned as illegitimate by Ukraine and the West, will have little impact on the battlefield. Rather they are a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate his gains in the conflict.

“I can’t see how the referenda can make Ukraine any more determined than it already is. The referenda are a breach of international law. I don’t see them as game changing, I don’t see them as doing much to bolster Russian morale,” said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst for land warfare at Rusi, a defence and security think tank.

However the votes, which many regard as being fixed, could be a catalyst for bloodier violence down the line, with Moscow seeing any attempts by Ukrainians to regain ground in what it regards as its own territories as particularly inflammatory.

Voters in Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Luhansk were reportedly coerced into casting their ballots in the referenda, with some claiming men with guns forced people to vote in the streets.

Russian-installed leaders in all four areas say they have formally asked Mr Putin to incorporate their territories into Russia. This could happen as soon as 4 October, according to Moscow officials.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the votes a “farce in the occupied territories”.

Mr Reynolds said the referenda would impact how Russia negotiates in the future by “raising a question mark in everyone’s head of Russia’s nuclear position”.

“The referenda are obviously shams but Russian nuclear doctrine is quite clear when it comes to defending what is officially considered Russian territory by the state – that use of nuclear weapons is an option.

“I think the referenda are an obvious step to raise nuclear uncertainty and give Ukraine and its allies pause for thought.

“I think the referenda were aimed at international partners. I don’t think Russian military can defeat Ukraine on the battlefield. The Ukrainian state is bankrupt and dependent on funding. Russia could [be trying to] break the will of Ukraine’s allies… through nuclear risk.”

Valeriy Akimenko, a senior research analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Centre, agreed that Russia wanted to raise the issue of nuclear uncertainty “to deter the West and thus increase Russia’s own operational latitude”.

“It will not – or should not – work.”

Mr Akimenko suggested the referenda could also be a “convenient” way for Mr Putin to declare a victory before possibly de-escalating the conflict.

“Escalate to de-escalate, if you like, but not in a nuclear way, hence his decision to call a ‘partial’ mobilisation.

“That’s not to say that this is the end of it. On the back of this mobilisation, it’s almost certain he’ll continue to seek further incremental gains in the east and south – unless of course his military collapse.”

Edward Arnold, a European security research fellow at Rusi, said the referenda would change little on the ground: “It’s really Putin and Russia trying to consolidate the gains that they have made because they know that they’re very fragile.”

Unlike his peers, Mr Arnold did not believe the referenda raised the risk of nuclear attack. “According to the Russian Federation, Crimea is Russian territory and there have been attacks in Crimea over the last couple of months and it hasn’t raised the nuclear threshold.”

Ukraine has carried out airstrikes on Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. How Moscow reacts to the threat of Ukrainian soldiers in territories it has claimed as its own remains to be seen.

Mr Arnold added: “It’s escalatory… It can’t be seen as just an isolated incident. It’s also got to be seen with mobilisation and also the strikes on Nord Stream one and two that we saw yesterday. It is trying to deliberately raise the stakes to effectively try and spook some European nations. But it really appears from a position of desperation.”

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