Russia launches annexation referendums in occupied Ukrainian regions

Voting will take place in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporiyia. NATO and the EU reject the election process, calling it fake and illegal

AP Photo/File  -   A poster in Lugansk encourages people to vote in the 27 September referendum to join Russia

Referendums on annexation have begun in the Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine. These electoral processes - considered illegitimate by NATO and much of the international community - will take place until 27 September in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and in Kherson and Zaporiyia. These areas represent 15% of the Ukrainian national territory. 

For months, Moscow and the authorities in the occupied regions have been preparing for these referendums, which will be similar to the 2014 Crimean referendum that formalised Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. The Russian government has stressed that this process is an opportunity for people in the occupied areas to express their views.

​REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko - Referendums will be held until 27 September in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporiyia

"From the beginning of the operation we argued that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their destiny, and the current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their destiny," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to Reuters

During a speech to the UN Security Council - a body in which Russia enjoys veto power due to its permanent membership - Lavrov saw the referendums as a response to remarks by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in August.

​REUTERS/Umit Bektas - "No to the referendum! Remain Ukrainian!", says a poster in Kharkov

"The apotheosis was the 5 August interview of Mr Zelensky, who advised all those who feel Russian to leave for Russia, for the sake of their children and grandchildren," Lavrov said, according to Russia's Sputnik news agency. The head of Russian diplomacy also stressed that the holding of referendums "represents a response to the desire" of the residents of several Ukrainian regions.

​AP Photo/File - For months, Moscow and the authorities in the occupied regions have been preparing for these referendums

However, according to Serhiy Gaidai, Ukrainian governor of Lugansk, in the Russian-controlled city of Bilovodsk, the head of one company assured his employees that voting was mandatory and that those who did not do so would be fired and investigated by the security services, Reuters reports.

Gaidai also added that the Russian authorities banned the population from leaving the city until Tuesday, the final day of the process, and sent armed groups to control the population and force them to participate in the referendum.

​AP Photo -  "How to get a Russian passport", reads a poster in Lugansk on the occasion of the referendum on annexation to Russia
EU threatens further sanctions 

Since news of Russia's plans to organise such referendums became public, NATO and the European Union have expressed their rejection of the vote, calling it a "flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter". "NATO members will not recognise the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Ukrainian territory," says the Atlantic Alliance. The EU, for its part, is also threatening Putin with further sanctions over the referendums.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, has also rejected the referendums because they do not conform to Ukrainian and international law. Furthermore, the areas are not secure and independent observers will not be involved

​REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko - Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic Vladimir Vysotsky

Even NATO member Turkey, which has maintained dialogue with Russia since the beginning of the war, has announced that the results "will not be recognised by the international community". "We are concerned about attempts to hold unilateral referendums in parts of Ukraine under Russian control," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, in which it also reiterated its "support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine".

Analysts believe that Russia's aim with these referendums is to start labelling Ukrainian attacks on Russian troops in these regions as 'attacks on Russian soil', thus responding more firmly. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned during his recent speech announcing a partial military mobilisation that the country would "use all means" to protect its national territory. "This is not a bluff", he stressed. 

​REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko - The OSCE has rejected the referendums because they do not comply with Ukrainian and international law

Former president and current deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has indicated on his Telegram channel that "invasion of Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all self-defence forces". "That's why these referendums are so feared in Kiev and the West," he added, Reuters reports.

Ukrainian authorities, for their part, claim that these processes show that Russia "is scared". "Whatever decision the Russian leadership makes changes nothing for Ukraine," Zelensky said.