Russian ‘referendum’ in occupied Ukraine casts menacing shadow

If things weren’t bad enough already, imagine a Russia that is meaner, more menacing — and bigger, to boot.

This is the promise and the threat that flows from the results of a separation vote announced Tuesday in four Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. It is a vote that was held in a war zone, with ballots at times cast in view of gun-toting Russian soldiers; a vote whose foreign observers — normally meant to provide impartial legitimacy — were journalists employed by, or with close ties to, the Russian state.

Whether one were to accept the result or ignore it as the product of a referendum process that was neither free nor fair, it marks a new chapter in the seven-month conflict that is increasingly stalked by a dark, nuclear-edged shadow.

The opening lines of that chapter were a celebratory welcome to the citizens that remain in the Ukrainian territories — a great many, with the means and inclination, have long since fled — that are slated to become part of a supersized Russia.

“The referendums are over. The results are obvious,” wrote Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, on the Telegram instant messaging service. “Welcome home to Russia!”

A ballot marked 'Yes' — in favor of joining Russia — is seen at a ballot box on Sept.  27 during the referendum in Luhansk, in Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia-backed forces there.  Voting had started Friday.

Annexing the Ukrainian territory lets Russia celebrate the reconstitution of Novorossiya, a historical territory that existed in imperial Russia and now provides strategic land access to the Black Sea and its ports.

The situation “will radically change from a legal point of view, from the point of view of international law,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday “with all the relevant consequences for the purposes of protecting and ensuring security in these territories.”

The formalities will indeed move quickly from here.

After the votes to leave Ukraine and join Russia were counted in Donetsk (whose Russian-installed government reported that 99.23 per cent voted in favour), Luhansk (98.42 per cent), Kherson (87.05 per cent) and Zaporizhzhia (93.11 per cent), the heads of the four regions were expected to travel to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and present their appeal to join Russia on behalf of the majority of the 4.83 million people that election organizers said had participated.

The Russian legislature, the Duma, will discuss annexation of the territories Wednesday or Thursday, while the Federation Council, Russia’s top law-making body, will meet early next week. But there is no question of not accepting the occupied Ukrainian regions into Russia.

“If there is such a will on their part to join the Russian Federation, of course, we will support it,” said Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko. “We don’t abandon our own.”

Similar words have been uttered by the Ukrainian leadership about those in the occupied territories, with just as much conviction.

Konstantin Ivashchenko, left, the Russian-appointed pro-Russian mayor of Mariupol, visits a polling station as people vote in the referendum there on Sept.  27, 2022.

Bohdan Kordan, a professor of international relations and expert on Ukraine at the University of Saskatchewan, said the annexation of more Ukrainian territory by Russia (the southern peninsula of Crimea having been taken in 2014) is a deliberately provocative move by Moscow that defies the West and the accepted tenets of international law.

Coming after a breakthrough by the Ukrainian army, which regained some 6,000 square kilometers of Russian-occupied land in northeastern Ukraine and liberated dozens of towns and villages, the votes and eventual annexation seems to be a counterpunch that kills any hope of a negotiated end to the war.

“(Russia has) annexed someone’s territory, basically saying that the territorial integrity of a state no longer matters,” Kordan said. “There’s no point in having a diplomatic conversation about what are the issues.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that the votes should be punished by “powerful sanctions” against Russia “and separate clear signals about what will happen if the Russian Federation recognizes these artificial ‘referenda.’”

Ukraine will continue the fight to regain control of its country no matter the referendum results, Kordan said. “Zelenskyy and others have basically said, ‘This means nothing.’”

But it does mean something for Russia.

In Kakhovka, a town on the banks of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, Russian-appointed administrator Pavel Filipchuk appealed Tuesday for Putin to act on the results “as soon as possible at the highest level of the Russian Federation” so that people can be assured of their “safety and stability.”

And even before the results were announced, a statue was unveiled in occupied Melitopol of Alexander Nevsky — a historical Kievan Rus military commander fabled for warding off western invaders in the 11th century.

Moscow has warned that cities such as Kherson, Melitopol, Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the other towns and villages destined to be annexed by Russia, will be considered Russian territory and protected as such — just as much as St. Petersburg and Vladivostok and sochi.

And so in theory, at least, any attempt to retake the soon-to-be-Russian land by military force would constitute just as much of an existential threat — the red line for a Russian nuclear response — as an invading army marching on Moscow itself.

Putin hinted at the higher stakes to come when he pledged last week that Russia would “use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and its people.”

Medvedev puts that threat Tuesday in concrete terms.

“Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, in predetermined cases,” he wrote on Telegram, specifying that Russia would go nuclear if first attacked with a nuclear weapon or if there was an undefined threat to “the very existence of our state.”

Medvedev added that he was confident the West was attuned to the very real risks of nuclear escalation.

“They understand that if the threat to Russia exceeds the established danger limit, we will have to respond. Without asking anyone’s permission, without long consultations. And it’s definitely not a bluff,” he wrote.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan revealed last weekend that his country has been engaged in talks with Russia about the nuclear threat. He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Moscow has been warned of “catastrophic consequences” if it deploys nuclear weapons.

But Medvedev, a former Russian president who, by nature of his seat on the Security Council, might be expected to be privy to the Moscow-Washington talks, predicted that the US and NATO would not even intervene on Ukraine’s behalf if Russia decided to launch a nuclear strike.

“Overseas and European demagogues are not going to perish in a nuclear apocalypse. Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict,” Medvedev wrote. “It would be nice if the authorities in Kyiv would at least partially realize this sad conclusion.”

Kordan said the nuclear sabre-rattling by Putin must be taken seriously — even if it will not and cannot change Zelenskyy’s course in the war.

“You have a dictator and a dictator, by definition, is someone who knows no bounds, so the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons is there,” he said.

“From the perspective of the Ukrainians, whether it’s a referendum or nuclear weapons, it doesn’t matter. The issue for them is they have nowhere to go. This is an existential threat. Either they win this, or they do not survive regardless.”

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