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What does annex mean in war? The meaning of annexation and Putin’s plans for Russia in Ukraine explained

The i 29/09/2022 E-obyrnemulligan
An elderly couple vote in their flat during a referendum in Dokuchaievsk, Donetsk on September 23, 2022. Russia says voting was voluntary, in line with international law, and that turnout was high. (Photo: AP) © Provided by The i An elderly couple vote in their flat during a referendum in Dokuchaievsk, Donetsk on September 23, 2022. Russia says voting was voluntary, in line with international law, and that turnout was high. (Photo: AP)

The Kremlin is poised to annex a swath of Ukraine within days, having released results of disputed referendums which claim to show overwhelming support in four provinces for joining Russia.

The polls have drawn condemnation from Kyiv and Western nations, who dismissed them a “sham” following reports of soldiers going door-to-door, holding voters at gunpoint.

On Moscow’s Red Square, a stage with giant video screens has been set up, with billboards proclaiming “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson – Russia!”

Here’s what you need to know.

What does annexation mean?

Annexation is a formal act whereby a state proclaims its sovereignty over land previously outside its borders, incorporating that territory into itself.


The Kremlin previously annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, a peninsula bordering Russia, after invading in February and March 2014. Ukrainians had recently deposed their pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the Maidan uprising by protesters seeking warmer relations with the EU and Nato.

Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014 after the months-long uprising, which saw security forces shoot dead at least 77 protesters in Kyiv. Ukraine would go on to usher in the first in a series of pro-European governments to replace him.

The ousting of Yanukovych provoked immediate unrest in the east of Ukraine bordering Russia, where pro-Kremlin sentiments are higher.

In addition to spurring on separatists, Vladimir Putin took advantage of the removal of Yanukovych by ordering work “on returning Crimea to Russia”.

Amid pro-Russian demonstrations in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol days after Yanukovych fled, masked Russian troops without insignia moved to capture strategic sites across Crimea.

A disputed and internationally rejected referendum was held on 16 March, 2014, in which Moscow claimed 96.77 per cent of Crimeans voted to become part of Russia.

Despite international outcry, Russia formally incorporated Crimea as two Russian federal subjects – the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol – on 18 March, 2014.

Disputed votes

This month’s “votes” were hastily organised after a Ukrainian counter-offensive recaptured large swathes of the north-east that were lost since Russia invaded in February.

Polls were held in Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Lugansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, representing about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.

Russian-installed officials said 93 per cent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region were in support of annexation, as were 87 per cent of ballots in southern Kherson, 98 per cent in Luhansk and 99 per cent in Donetsk.

The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament said it could consider the incorporation of the four partially occupied regions on 4 October, three days before Putin’s 70th birthday.

The Russian-installed administrations of the four provinces have formally asked Putin to incorporate them into Russia, which Russian officials have suggested is a formality.

“This should happen within a week,” Rodion Miroshnik, the Russia-installed ambassador to Moscow of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, told the RIA state news agency.

“The main thing has already happened. The referendum has taken place. Therefore, let’s say ‘the locomotive has already started and it’s unlikely to be stopped’.”

To annex the territories, some sort of treaty will need to be struck and ratified by the Russian parliament, which is controlled by Putin allies. The areas will then be seen as part of Russia and its nuclear umbrella will extend to them. Putin has warned he would use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory from attack.

Residents who escaped to Ukrainian-held areas in recent days have told of people being forced to mark ballots in the street by roving officials at gunpoint. Footage filmed during the exercise showed Russian-installed officials taking ballot boxes house-to-house with armed men in tow.

Russia says voting was voluntary, in line with international law, and that turnout was high. The referendums and notion of annexations have been rejected globally, as was Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea.

By incorporating the four areas, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, using them as a pretext to escalate military efforts, or even justify the use of nuclear weapons.

Additional reporting by agencies


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