Referendums and Joining Russia

On September 27, referendums on joining Russia in the Donbas republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts were completed. The referendum in Donbas, which has already declared its independence, asked "Do you support the entry of the DPR into the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?" In the oblasts, the referendum had three parts: “Are you in favor of the region leaving Ukraine, creating an independent state, and joining the Russian Federation?”

Election officials report that all four regions overwhelmingly voted to join Russia: 93% in Zaporizhzhia, 87% in Kherson, 98% in Luhansk and 99% in Donetsk.

As both sides have pointed out, holding referendums in a war zone highlights questions of legitimacy. The Associated Press reports that Russian troops went door-to-door collecting votes and that in Kherson Ukrainian resistance movements "have killed Moscow-appointed officials and threatened those who considered voting."

The West has dismissed the referendums as a sham. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the West would "never recognize" the referendum results, and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield immediately announced that the US will introduce a resolution condemning the resolutions and calling on member states not to recognize their results.

In his address to the UN just prior to the completion of the referendums, President Biden called the referendums a "sham" and an “an extremely significant violation of the U.N. charter.”

Whether the referendums were conducted legitimately or not, the results may not be a surprise. Ukraine has always been a nation divided: the northwest has always faced west to Europe, and the southeast has always faced east to Russia. Historically, the west has voted for presidential candidates with European oriented policies, and the east has voted for presidents with Russian oriented policies. In 2019, Zelensky was elected in large part because his platform of making peace with Russia and signing the Minsk II Agreement that would grant the Donbas autonomy, won him the Russian speaking vote in the south and east.

The 2014 Donetsk and Luhansk referendums were limited to sovereignty and not becoming part of Russia then only because of Russian pressure. When the two regions declared their independence, Moscow did not recognize it. In Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa says that “Putin showed little sign of wanting a Crimea-style takeover of the region, repeatedly rejecting requests to accept the territory as part of Russia.” When Donbas did hold elections, though Putin “respected” the results, he declined to accept them or be bound by them."

When a similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014, a similar result occurred. Similar questions about legitimacy and accuracy were asked then. But Sakwa says that “It is clear that the majority of the Crimean population favored unification with Russia.” A majority voted for unification with Russia when the question was put to the referendum. The accuracy of the exact result has been the subject of debate, but Sakwa says that “even in perfect conditions a majority in Crimea would have voted for union with Russia.”

In his address to the UN, Biden insisted that, even had the vote not been fixed and a sham, it would never be recognized because it is “an extremely significant violation of the UN charter.” The fluidity of that claim, depending on US foreign policy interests, is exposed by Biden’s near simultaneous insistence three days earlier that “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. . . . that’s their decision.” It doesn’t violate the UN charter if it works against China; it violates the UN charter if it works for Russia. Furthermore, the US officially recognizes other annexations, most recently the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara.

But the hypocrisy that most makes Russia boil is Kosovo. In 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia without even the pretense of holding a referendum, the US recognized the declaration against repeated UN resolutions upholding the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. Sakwa also points out that the US endorsed “the infamous advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice . . . that Kosovo’s declaration of independence ‘did not violate general international law’.”

"As a result," Alexander Lukin, who is Head of Department of International Relations at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says, “Russia sees the West’s position on Crimea . . . as nothing more than a case of extreme hypocrisy.”

And as for violating the UN charter, Kosovo again makes Russia’s blood boil. The US not only ignored the UN in recognizing Kosovo’s independence from Yugoslavia, they ignored the UN in severing Kosovo from Yugoslavia. In March 1999, the US and NATO began bombing Serbian army positions in Kosovo without Security Council approval. In Not One Inch, M.E. Sarotte quotes an August 1998 conversation in which President Clinton told German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that "we need to make it clear that NATO can and will act without a Security Council resolution."

Under international law, Kosovo was part of Serbia. The US was taking another country’s territory by force – just as it is now accusing Russia of – and then recognizing its independence – just as it is now accusing Russia of – without even the pretense of a referendum.

This moment is a transformative and dangerous one in the war in Ukraine. Until now, Russia has claimed that its military operation in eastern Ukraine has the aim of pushing back NATO and protecting cultural Russians. That is no longer the case.

If the Russian Duma and Putin accept the verdict of the referendums, then these regions become part of Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, former president and current deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, has reminded, not only that after the referendum the regions become part of Russia, but that "An encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime, the commission of which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave a similar warning: "the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security."

That means that a Ukrainian attack on the Donbas could now be seen by Russia as an attack on Russian territory. In his recent speech, Putin said that “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us.”

On August 22, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov citing the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the field of nuclear deterrence,  said that Russia “hypothetically” could allow the use of nuclear weapons if there is “aggression using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.” That could now include a strike on the Donbas.

Like the US, Russia maintains a nuclear capacity for emergency use in case the existence of the state is threatened. Russians consider Crimea to be Russia. So, threatening to attack or take Crimea is an existential threat to the Russian state. If Russia accepts the four referendums, then the same could be true in those four territories. Since that is where the fighting is taking place, that makes this transformative moment a very dangerous one.

Putin has warned that his promise to defend Russian territory is not a bluff. Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, announced on September 29 that "the four new territories will officially become part of Russia" and that "the official signing ceremony uniting four new territories with Russia will be held on Friday, September 30," beginning the process. The head of the upper house of the Russian parliament says that "the chamber could consider the incorporation of the four regions on Oct. 4." That leaves a very small window for a push for a diplomatic solution before Ukraine and the US have to decide if they want to call Putin’s bluff.

The US raised the stakes in the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive by not only providing weapons, training and targeting intelligence but by becoming directly involved. They showed their hand by advising on which areas could most successfully be struck in a counteroffensive and even war-gaming them with Ukraine. Russia then raised the stakes by holding the referendums and reminding the US that they would use all weapons systems available to them to defend Russian territory.

Now is the time to aggressively negotiate in the hope that the referendums were Putin’s way of raising the stakes and that his promise that he wasn’t bluffing was a bid to force the US to negotiate. The US can raise the stakes again, and they can call Putin’s bluff; Russia can raise the stakes again in an endless cycle of escalation and, devastatingly, be forced to show they were not bluffing. Or Ukraine, the US and Russia can finally negotiate an end to this war.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.