Ukraine referendum: what is a sham referendum - why does Putin want Donbas and Kherson to join Russia?

The planned votes have been called a ‘sham’ and illegitimate by Ukraine and its allies

Russia confirmed on Thursday (29 September) it will formally annex parts of Ukraine where occupied areas held Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” on living under Moscow’s rule that the Ukrainian government and the West denounced as illegal and rigged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony on Friday in the Kremlin when four regions of Ukraine will be officially folded into Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Moscow-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine have been holding ‘referendums’ on joining Russia since 23 September in Luhansk, Kherson, and parts of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, which are partially controlled by Russia.

The ‘votes’ were almost guaranteed to fall in Moscow’s favour, and could give the Kremlin the pretext for a wider war, as Putin would be able to claim parts of his state were being attacked.

But will the results be recognised by the international community, and what will they mean for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine?

Here is everything you need to know.

Where were the ‘referendums’ held?

Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine voted on whether to become integral parts of the Russian state.

‘Referendums’ were held in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia regions.

Luhansk and Donetsk form much of the Donbas region, which has been gripped by separatist fighting since 2014 and which Putin has set as a primary objective of the Russian invasion.

(Image: NationalWorld)

Are the ‘referendums’ legitimate?

Following the announcement of the ‘referendums’, they were promptly regarded as illegitimate by Western leaders.

In 2014, a similar referendum was held on the status of the Crimean peninsula, asking the citizens if they wanted Crimea to rejoin Russia, or restore the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine.

But the ballot did not include the option of keeping the status quo of Crimea as it was at the time of the vote, and because a restoration of the 1992 constitution would have given the Crimean parliament complete sovereign power to create ties with other states, many pundits believed that both options would have eventually resulted in de facto secession from Ukraine.

97% of residents voted in favour of Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation - there was a reported voter turnout of 83%.

The referendum was already unlawful under the Constitution of Ukraine, and is not recognised by most countries due to the presence of Russian military forces, who oversaw public buildings and Ukrainian military sites on the day of the vote.

The four upcoming ‘referendums’ were similarly be illegal under Ukraine’s constitution, and their results will not be recognised by the international community. They were also held under duress with no independent monitoring or verification.

For instance, the head of the occupation administration in Zaporizhzhia said they would go door-to-door with police to encourage residents "freed from Nazism" to vote.

As with the Crimean referendum of 2014, police and military forces are likely to create an environment of coercion around the upcoming ‘votes’ (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced the votes as a sham and tweeted that “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say”.

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has dismissed Russia‘s plans as “noise”, thanking Ukraine’s allies for condemning the votes.

In a nightly address, Zelensky said there were lots of questions surrounding the announcements but stressed that they would not change Ukraine’s commitment to retake areas occupied by Russian forces.

I thank all friends and partners of Ukraine for today’s mass principled firm condemnation of Russia’s attempts to stage new sham referenda,” he said.

Why did Putin call for the ‘referendums’?

The announcement came after a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said votes were needed, as Moscow loses ground in the war that began nearly seven months ago.

Pressure within Russia and from Moscow-backed leaders in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine for votes to pave their way to becoming Russian has increased after a Ukrainian counteroffensive that is recapturing large areas of Russian-occupied territory.

The swiftness of the Ukrainian counteroffensive also saw Russian forces abandon armoured vehicles and other weapons as they beat hasty retreats.

The votes will almost certainly go Moscow’s way, and could give the Kremlin the pretext for a wider war, as Putin would be able to claim parts of his state were being directly attacked.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said: “We will never recognise this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” adding that they reflect Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield.

“These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength,” he said.

In another signal that Russia is digging in for a protracted and possibly ramped-up conflict, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted Tuesday (20 September) to toughen laws against desertion, surrender and looting by Russian troops. Legislators also voted to introduce possible 10-year prison terms for soldiers refusing to fight.

If approved, as expected, by the upper house and then signed by Putin, the legislation would strengthen commanders’ hands against failing morale reported among soldiers.