Four Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine have said they are planning to hold “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation in a series of coordinated announcements that could indicate the Kremlin has made a decision to formally annex the territories.
Moscow may be betting that a formal annexation would help halt Russian territorial losses, after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that has reclaimed large portions of territory in the Kharkiv region.
The occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions have said they are ready to hold “polls”, which will be universally viewed as rigged, as soon as this week, with announcements also made in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Some Russian media have reported that Vladimir Putin may deliver a speech on Tuesday evening on a potential annexation.
As Ukrainian troops begin making advances in the Luhansk region, Russia may be worried that it can’t win on the battlefield and threaten a potential escalation, including a formal declaration of war or even a nuclear attack, by claiming to defend its own territory.
“Everything that’s happening today is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum to Ukraine and the West,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert on Kremlin politics and founder of R.Politik. “Either Ukraine retreats or there will be nuclear war.”
“To guarantee ‘victory’, Putin is ready to hold referendums immediately in order to obtain the right (in his understanding) to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory.”
Also on Tuesday, the Russian state Duma passed new amendments to the legal code that directly refer to “mobilisation” and “martial law” and introduce criminal liability for desertion or wilful surrender during that period.
The Kremlin has so far resisted a full mobilisation, likely due to fear of a political backlash. Now, however, it seems that the Kremlin may be willing to go further than before, including using nuclear blackmail in order to freeze the war and solidify its territorial gains in Ukraine.
The decision has not been publicly adopted by the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin. However, senior Russian officials, including the former president Dmitry Medvedev, have supported calls for the referendums.
In a post on his Telegram page, Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, said that the referendums would “completely change the vector of Russia’s development for decades”. They would also prevent a future Russian leader from reversing Russian support for the Ukrainian regions, he wrote.
“That is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and in the west,” he wrote. “That is why they need to be carried out.”
In a response, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, wrote that the referendums would not prevent Ukraine from continuing to “liberate its territories.”
“Sham ‘referendums’ will not change anything”, wrote Kuleba. “Neither will any hybrid ‘mobilisation’. Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them no matter what Russia says.”