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Illegitimate referendums will radicalise Russia’s war against Ukraine

Putin is travelling deeper into his own fantastical universe where he plays the Russian hero at war with Ukraine’s ‘Nazis’ and the entire western world

Opening this weekend in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine is a Kremlin-financed production of local self-determination, a spectacle of referendums. Four locations in Ukraine are in the spotlight. Two are familiar, the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics created during Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. President Vladimir Putin justified his second invasion by claiming these entities faced “genocide”.

Two others are oblasts seized by the Russian military at the outset of the war, Kherson just north of Crimea and Zaporizhia to its northeast. Russia does not fully control any of these regions. Luhansk comes closest, then Kherson (about 88 per cent held), Zaporizhia (67 per cent), and Donetsk (57 per cent).

In a letter to Putin, Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin appealed for annexation after the performance: “The long-suffering people of Donbass deserve to be part of the Great Country, which they have always considered their Motherland. This event will be the restoration of historical justice, the onset of which millions of Russian people crave.” Pushilin has been selling Donetsk’s annexation since April 2014.

Western leaders have already condemned the spectacle. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, dubbed them “pretend referendums in territories that have been bombed and continue to be occupied”. US president Joe Biden denounced them as a sham. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney tweeted that the “sham referendums planned in occupied parts of Ukraine will never be recognised” by the international community.


Public opinion research, which is never perfect, suggests there are few supporters of secession from Ukraine in Kherson and Zaporizhia

These referendums may not be accorded any legitimacy but their staging radicalises the war against Ukraine in three important ways. First, it radicalises the divisions on the ground within the Ukrainian populations living in these regions. Russia certainly has some supporters in all four regions. But public-opinion research, which is never perfect, suggests there are few supporters of secession from Ukraine in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

The Donbas is a different story, with considerable support for annexation to Russia within the so-called people’s republics and some support beyond also in government-controlled area. Majorities on both sides of the Donbas front line before February, however, were more interested in having a normal life than in which flag flew over their municipality. They were not allowed that, however, as the Donbas became the scene of a growing geopolitical fault line within Ukraine and beyond that between Russia and the West.

Russia’s second invasion has driven more than a million people from the area and killed thousands. Those remaining – perhaps four million, though no one knows precisely – are hunkered down in an active war zone. Now local authorities are demanding a display of loyalty to Russia. That radicalises matters even further.

Shades of grey

Ukraine’s leadership has long faced a challenge of how to deal with fellow Ukrainians who are sympathetic to Russia. Collaboration is a loaded term but there are many shades of grey in any war zone. People often have to accommodate themselves to power structures to get work, to access services, to eat, to stay alive. For ordinary people, these referendums deepen insecurity.

Second, the four territories where the referendums are occurring make up a swath of territory that gives Russia a clear land bridge to Crimea. They also allow it to control most of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. In the spring of 2014, Russian nationalists sought to separate these territories, along with the adjacent coastal regions of Mykolaiv and Odessa, from Ukraine. They dubbed their separatist entity Novorossiya (New Russia), the name Catherine the Great gave to the area after conquering it. But this project failed as locals rallied to Ukraine.

Novorossiya reappeared this week in Putin’s speech ordering yet more young Russians into his war against Ukraine. This is bad news, for it reveals its enduring significance as a primordial historical reference point for Putin. It also suggests a settler, colonial attitude towards these lands, one where the native population can be removed and the territory remade anew by the Kremlin. In an echo of Potemkin, Russia’s curators of occupied Ukraine are creating a facade of self-determination for the Kremlin to broadcast to captive audiences across the Russian world.

Thousands of young Russians are now being mobilised as extras to play in Putin’s movie. It is a real horror show with no end in sight

The most consequential radicalisation may be what follows the referendum and annexation. This is the new map of Mother Russia, an enlarged cartographic image with a fifth of Ukraine coloured as Russian territory. Ukraine’s drive to liberate its occupied territory in this new visual world would be an attack on the territorial integrity of Russia. Putin threatens to use nuclear weapons should this happen: “The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us.”

Facing unpleasant realities in Ukraine, Putin this week journeyed further into his own geopolitical universe. It’s an affirming place, one where he stars as a Russian hero rescuing compatriots from “Nazism” in Ukraine while fighting the entire military machine of the collective West. Thousands of young Russians are now being mobilised as extras to play in this movie. It is a real horror show with no end in sight.

Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University