In recent days, separatist referendums are being held in the four Ukrainian oblasts at least partially controlled by Russia. In the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in their Russian-controlled parts, pro-Russian administrators hold a vote in which the population will supposedly be consulted if they wish to be part of the Russian Federation . The referendums have the support of the Putin government, but they will probably not have the desired effect, at least internationally.
Russia seeks to repeat what it did in
, on the Crimean peninsula. In 21 February of that year, in the context of the Euromaidan protests and demonstrations, the government of Crimea, then an autonomous region of Ukraine, asked for Russia’s “protection” against alleged aggression. from Ukrainians; the Ukrainian government classified the action as illegal. Pro- and anti-Russian demonstrations took place in Crimea. Unidentified elite Russian troops seized key military installations in Ukraine. Several Ukrainian officials in Crimea defected to Russia, as the then commander of the Ukrainian navy.
On 16 March 2014 a referendum was held in Crimea that decides on the independence of the peninsula and application for accession to Russia. The vote was held under occupation, which raised international criticism as well as legal questions. After the referendum, the Russian government announced that it would consider Crimea as part of its territory and, two days later, incorporated the self-proclaimed Autonomous Republic of Crimea into its federation.
Russian arguments, with a certain degree of cynicism, claimed that Kosovo’s independence from Serbia was identical, setting a precedent. Consequently, for Russia, states that recognized Kosovo’s independence would not have the authority to question Crimea’s independence. In this case, the historic alliance between Russia and Serbia also weighs, with Moscow being the main power that criticized the Kosovar independence process.
The US government, then under Barack Obama, did not recognize the annexation of Crimea and imposed sanctions against Russia. Other governments followed critical stances, although without concrete actions, such as the States of continental Europe. Some countries have gone so far as to recognize Russian possession of Crimea. Most of the world, however, did not legally recognize, but in practice, accepted the Russian possession of Crimea.
Whether due to historical ties or because it is a nuclear power, the annexation was given as a fait accompli, a fait accomplis. This stance can be summarized in the statements of the then commander of the German navy at the beginning of 2022, Kay-Achim Schönbach. Before being fired for such statements in a lecture, he said, among other things, that Crimea “was in the past” and that Ukraine would never be able to retake the peninsula.
The new referendums, on the other hand, they are being widely condemned, even by Moscow’s allies. No one is willing to “tolerate” an eventual reality, unlike the case of Crimea. As expected, countries such as the US or the UK classified the votes as shams, which will not be recognized and that Ukraine’s territorial integrity needs to be respected. Turkey, which tries to maintain an equidistant position between Russia and Ukraine, projecting itself as a mediator in the conflict, replied that “such fait accomplis illegitimate will not be recognized by the international community. On the contrary, they will complicate efforts to revitalize the diplomatic process and deepen instability.”
Countries such as China and India spoke only of respect for Ukrainian territorial integrity. Serbia, a Russian ally, has said it will not recognize the referendums. In this case, even motivated by its own interest, since recognizing the independence of a Ukrainian oblast would create a precedent against its own arguments in relation to Kosovo. Kazakhstan, which requested Russian help in suppressing its protests earlier this year, also said it would not recognize the referendums.
In this case it is a self-protective measure, as about a quarter of the Kazakh population is of Russian origin. In other words, in the not-so-distant future, this population could be the protagonist of a similar referendum. Perhaps, then, the most revealing recent comment on the referendums came from Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. He stated that the territories would be under “full protection” by Russia if that is the “will of their populations”.
In military terms, the referendum and eventual annexation by Russia could imply that attacks against these territories would be seen as attacks against the Russian state. According to the Russian constitution, the state must be under threat in order for the use of nuclear weapons to be justified, among other military procedures. It would be a pressure tool made by Russia, increasing the chances of declarations about the use of nuclear weapons.
Also in the military field, there is the possibility that the annexation of the territories would lead to the mobilization of its male population to war, as is already the case in Luhansk and Donetsk. Another consequence of a possible formalization of territorial annexation could be in relation to the peace process. Ukraine, of course, has already made it very clear that it will not recognize the referendums. In peace talks, then, Russia can “put a price” in exchange for giving up that recognition. Or, quite unlikely, Russia can declare itself a satisfied power, although Ukraine has already made it clear that it will not cede territory in exchange for peace.
Regarding the annexation of Ukrainian territories, there are not many gains on the Russian horizon. The decision escalates the conflict and increases the stakes, this at a time unfavorable to the Russians, with recent Ukrainian advances. Mainly, it isolates Russia internationally even more, as almost no country will want to support a measure that could backfire one day. Considering the last few months, Russia cannot afford to become even more isolated.