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Why is Russia holding sham referendums?

Roman Goncharenko
September 23, 2022

Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine have started voting in "referendums" asking if they want their regions to be part of Russia. The process is reminiscent of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — with differences.

Man and woman pass poster that reads Russians and Ukrainians are one people
According to this poster in Kherson, Russians and Ukrainians are one people Image: Sergei Malgavko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Voting for the so-called referendums started in the Russian-held Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine on Friday morning.

Residents are being asked to vote "yes" or "no" to whether they their regions to be part of Russia.

In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Moscow would recognize the results.

Just as it did with the Crimean annexation in 2014, Russia is making a point of appearing not to be involved.

It was local Ukrainian politicians supported by the Russian military who announced the so-called referendums. As in the case of Crimea eight years ago, the vote has been brought forward from a previously suggested date — that of November 4.

Regional referendums are banned in Ukraine. Like in Crimea, there will be no independent election monitoring.

Putin on a TV screen
President Vladimir Putin made a speech on Russian TV on WednesdayImage: AdrienFillon/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

'Yes' or 'no'

However, that is as far as the similarities go — there are far more differences.

Donetsk and Luhansk are separatist republics that have effectively been under Russian control since 2014. Vladimir Putin recognized them as independent states shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

The Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, on the other hand, were occupied almost entirely or partially by Russia only after the invasion began. Fighting continues in all four regions to this day. A referendum had also been planned in the areas east of Kharkiv, which were occupied until a few days ago.

The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive seems to have dashed that idea.

Russian media are reporting that there will be regional differences. In Donetsk and Luhansk, the ballot will pose a single question, to be answered with a "yes" or a "no," on whether to join the Russian Federation. 

In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, three questions will be asked but only one "yes" or "no" answer will be possible: "Are you for secession from Ukraine, establishing an independent country and joining the Russian Federation?"

Voting will also take place in Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled since 2014. The majority of Ukrainian refugees, however — several million — have fled to regions controlled by Kyiv and abroad.


Infografik Karte Sogenannte Volksabstimmungen in der Ostukraine EN

There will be no electronic voting. Mobile election teams escorted by police are scheduled to make house visits in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian-appointed head of administration, Yevgeny Balitsky, told Russian state broadcaster Rossiya 24 on Tuesday.

Russia's goals

Once the annexation has been formalized, the idea is that fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk will be able to join the Russian army. But Moscow plans to recruit volunteers in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The annexation of the new territories would allow Russia to use "all the forces of self-defense," former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel on Tuesday. Many observers interpreted that as a threat to use nuclear weapons. However, a Ukrainian attack on a Russian military airport in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea last month did not trigger an immediate Russian response.

A destroyed ambulance in Lysychansk
Russia is suffering considerable losses in UkraineImage: Stanislav Krasilnikov/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Russia's original plan to hold what was to look like an orderly vote has been scrapped, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political scientist. He told DW that a vote taking place "during a war that almost half of the population has fled," could not be taken seriously.

2019 survey in Donbas: no majority for annexation

There is no reliable data on the current mood in Ukraine's Russian-occupied territories. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the Berlin Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), fewer than one out of two, or about 45%, of the residents of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were in favor of annexation to Russia. At that time, 27% supported an autonomous status — and 54% of respondents in the two regions advocated a return to Ukraine.

This article was originally written in German.

This article was updated on Friday September 23 to reflect recent events.