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Putin's sham referendums in Ukraine are a sign of weakness

Eggert Konstantin
Konstantin Eggert
September 27, 2022

Russia is trying to repeat the 2014 Crimean Peninsula plebiscite to annex more of Ukraine. This ruse will fail, writes DW's Konstantin Eggert.

A woman sealing a ballot box
Nothing but a sham: The "referendums" in Ukraine are a half-hearted attempt by Putin to show strengthImage: Yegor Aleyev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The Moscow-organized "referendums" in the four partially occupied Ukrainian regions draw to a close on Tuesday. 

Everyone, including President Vladimir Putin himself, knows these plebiscites are even more fake than the March 2014 Crimean Peninsula "referendum" spectacle which led to the Ukrainian peninsula's annexation by Russia. The results are predictable. Later this week, the Kremlin will formally announce that the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson all "voted" to join Russia. Putin will no doubt grant their wish and sign the accession documents in the coming days to give himself a present on his 70th birthday on October 7.

The world will not recognize this sham vote much like it did not acknowledge the Crimean land grab. Maybe Russia's client states like Eritrea and Syria, or unrecognized entities like Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both forcibly taken by Russia from Georgia in 2008) will. 

Mobilization changes the game

DW's Konstantin Eggert
DW's Konstantin Eggert

Putin may believe that Russians will be pleased to learn that he just "saved" more of their kin from the imaginary clutches of the imaginary "Ukrainian neo-Nazis" and made their country even bigger. 

But unlike the euphoria which accompanied the annexation of 2014, this time Russians will pay scant attention. 

Firstly, because Crimea held a special place in the post-Soviet imagination wounded by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. Eastern Ukraine has no such symbolic meaning. Secondly, because the "referendums" are being held against the background of what Putin is officially calling a partial mobilization but which is, to all intents and purposes, a general call-up in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of families are sending off their unprepared men to war and very likely deaths. Many thousands more are hastily trying to help them escape across rapidly closing borders.

The Kremlin has no choice but to swiftly proclaim the occupied Ukrainian regions as Russian territory, then massively deploy the newly called up reservists there. Without them, holding on to these lands is very problematic for Russia. But now that the newly occupied territories will be proclaimed a Russian territory, Putin will claim that the Ukrainian armed forces are invading the Russian mainland. He will probably resort again to nuclear blackmail (as he's done regularly since the beginning of this all out invasion of Ukraine in February) to achieve a respite in the fighting and may even agree to some form of negotiations. 

Putin is under pressure to act quickly before the inevitably and sharply rising figures of the dead and wounded start to rattle Russian society. 

A map showing where the so-called referendums in Ukraine are taking place

Putin's despairing ploy

This is a desperate and risky plan. The Ukrainians will not withdraw from Donetsk and the other three regions. Putin will have to either push them back with conventional warfare or live up to his promise of using short-range battlefield nuclear weapons (sometimes mistakenly called tactical). This will entail a US response with "horrific" consequences, as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put it recently.

The Crimean plebiscite of 2014 was a spectacle staged by a an unscrupulous and cynical victor. In 2022 the situation is entirely different. Putin's "referendum" ruse today looks like a half-hearted attempt to show strength and resolve when both are visibly lacking. No matter how long the war will continue, these fake votes will be forgotten tomorrow. 

Edited by: Rob Mudge