By: Meagan McColloch
On February 24, 2022, Ukrainians in Kyiv awoke to air raid sirens. Unbeknownst to these Ukrainians and many others across the country at the time, these sirens marked the beginning of Russia’s latest military campaign to take back the once Soviet-governed state. Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, this war marks the first time since Russia has led an operation to seize territory from Ukraine. Nearly eight months since the war started, Ukraine’s resolve remains strong as Russia pounds the country from the East, focusing its barrage on the border regions. Unlike Russia’s previous attempts in central and western Ukraine, Russia’s campaign in the East has yielded some success, with Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk largely under Russian control. However, in late September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin accentuated Russia’s occupation of the eastern Ukrainian land by holding referendums on annexation in all four regions. These referendums mark a pivotal shift in the war as Moscow takes a step further in brazenly threatening the sovereignty of eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s Claims for the Referenda and Annexation
The referendum to decide Eastern Ukraine’s fate began on September 23, beginning with early voting, comprising both in-person and door-to-door voting. However, these voting methods were a far cry from the democratic model utilized by western countries. Recorded across the four regions are reports of the Russians using intimidation, with allegations of armed soldiers accompanying election officials. Ukrainian journalist Marin Eristavi tweeted that Russian soldiers had held his family at gunpoint as he cast his family’s vote. Similarly, a Ukrainian woman in Zaporizhzhia describes how Russian soldiers arrived at her flat. She now fears that her family may face prosecution after her husband voted “no” to joining Russia, and her fear is justified. According to Serhiy Haidai, the governor-in-exile of the Luhansk region, Russian authorities had been taking down the names of those who voted against joining Russia or those who simply refused to vote. As of yet, it is unknown what Russia plans to do with the names.
The referendum ended on the evening of September 27, despite outrage from the citizens and the international community. Russian state media claims that 98% of voters in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions voted in favor of joining Russia. Meanwhile, 93% of voters in the Zaporizhzhia region voted in favor of joining Russia, and 87% of voters in the Kherson region voted in favor of the measure. The execution and outcome of this referendum are strongly reminiscent of the referendum that took place in Crimea in 2014. Although denounced as inaccurate, Russia claimed that over 95% of voters in Crimea wanted to join Russia. Today, many criticize the most recent referendum results as a farce, arguing that such unusually high percentages could not be possible given the current political climate.
Following the results, President Vladimir Putin defended the referendums, claiming that they prevented further persecution of Russians and Russian speakers, which Ukraine has denied. Whether the results were a sham or not, the referendum dealt a significant blow to Ukraine. The referendum served as a major win for the Russian President, as the annexation covers 15% of Ukraine’s territory in the east. The last time Russia gained this much territory was in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, and it is the largest annexation in Europe since World War Two. On September 30, Putin moved swiftly to formally annex the four regions by signing “ascension treaties,” according to NPR. In a ceremony held at the Kremlin, the Russian President claimed that “the people made their choice” and “that choice wouldn’t be betrayed.” While Moscow offered to negotiate a resolution with Ukraine to end the war, Moscow emphasized that discussing the annexed regions would not be on the table. Since the vote, several rallies have occurred, supporting the new union between Russia and the four regions. Banners and flags depicted Russia and Eastern Ukraine being “together forever.”
The Backlash from Ukraine and Other Countries
Ukraine and its allies have condemned the referendum, calling it a “sham” and “illegal.” However, as another pushback against Russia in response to the referendum, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy applied for an accelerated NATO membership for Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukraine has already implemented NATO-style protocols into its military and has become gradually more dependent on weapons sent from NATO countries. However, Ukraine’s announcement is symbolic rather than pragmatic: an accelerated NATO membership would require NATO countries to send troops to Ukraine to fight Russia due to the alliance’s obligations in regard to defending other NATO countries. In the meantime, while Ukraine has called for peace negotiations, these negotiations will likely only take place once Putin is no longer President.
Following Ukraine’s footsteps, the United States condemned Russia’s actions. President Joe Biden released a statement that accused Russia of “violating international law.” The same morning, President Biden’s administration released a new wave of sanctions against Russia. These sanctions include but are not limited to a ban on all Russian oil and gas, a ban on Russia making debt payments using foreign currency in U.S. banks, and a ban on Russian flights to the U.S. and several other allies. National security advisor Jake Sullivan explained the purpose of the sanctions and how they will impact Russia. Sullivan expressed the United States’ desire “to reduce the capacity of the Russian military” in order to minimize Russia’s threat to Ukraine. Furthermore, Sullivan explained that the sanctions targeted Russia’s technology, defense, and industry sectors. These actions would weaken Russia and send a message to Russia’s allies that if they are to partake in the war, they will face similar sanctions. The sanctions also intend to target organizations outside of Russia that support the Russian military or the annexation of Ukraine territory.
In Britain, parliament has also denounced the annexation of Ukraine territory and waged heavy sanctions on Russia. Similar to the United States sanctions, these sanctions target Russia’s oil and gas, financial, and architecture sectors. The Foreign Office announced new measures to be implemented to place economic pressure on Russia by disrupting supply chains. Furthermore, Britain plans to ban over 700 goods vital to Russia’s industry and economy. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has also stressed that Britain would never recognize the annexation of Ukraine territory.
On October 12, the U.N. General Assembly held a vote to determine those against Russia’s annexation of four Ukraine regions and those in favor of Ukraine’s resolution. A total of 143 countries voted in favor of Ukraine’s resolution. In contrast, only five- Belarus, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, and Russia- voted against Ukraine’s resolution and supported the annexations. Perhaps most shockingly, while 35 countries abstained from the vote, two of those 35 were longtime Russian allies. Both China and Cuba abstained from the vote, maintaining the positions they have taken in the past with Ukraine-related issues.
Future Implications of the Annexations
With Ukraine unwilling to negotiate with Russia while Putin is President and Russia reluctant to concede the annexed territories, the fate of Eastern Ukraine remains unknown. Ukrainian forces are currently making significant gains in the South and East, specifically in territories that Putin annexed just weeks prior. In the Kherson region especially, President Zelenskyy claims that Ukrainian soldiers have reclaimed two settlements. North of Kherson, Moscow admits its troops abandoned Lyman to avoid encirclement by Ukrainian forces.
However, in another blow to the potential for peace negotiations, the Crimea bridge was damaged in an explosion on October 8. While it is unknown who is responsible for the explosion, President Putin criticizes Ukrainian intelligence services for what he calls a terrorist attack. Russia’s Federal Security Service has already arrested five Russian citizens, two Ukrainians and an Armenian.
In the midst of turmoil, as Russia faces pressure from Ukraine and its allies, President Putin has renewed nuclear threats. In order to avoid a humiliating defeat in Ukraine, Putin has indicated that he is willing to increase the potential for nuclear conflict. Putin has accused the United States and its allies of “nuclear blackmail” without elaboration and has asserted that this threat is “not a bluff.” However, some analysts have called Putin’s nuclear threat into question. In an interview with NBC and Phillips O’Brien, a professor from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, O’Brien states that he thinks Putin wants people to believe that he will resort to nuclear weapons. In reality, Putin remains unlikely to resort to those means.
As Ukraine and its allies look for a solution to end the war and reclaim Ukraine’s eastern territories, Russia’s commitment to Eastern Ukraine casts an uncertain future for when and how the war may end. Regardless, the conflict in Ukraine serves as a reminder of how fragile the state of democracy is in the free world. While democracy may be difficult to secure, the destruction of democracy is something far more easily executed. This conflict raises the question of what may be in store for countries like Ukraine, countries that have achieved democracy yet live in the shadow of their past oppressors, such as Taiwan with China. It is certain that Ukraine will not be the last country to fight for its land and democracy, as history often repeats itself. Yet, whether Ukraine becomes a beacon of hope for those countries or a grim harbinger of what is to come for them in the future remains unknown.