The United States has finally taken notice of Russia’s plans to “attempt the annexation of additional Ukrainian territories,” citing “massive evidence from both intelligence and open sources.” The realization is belated, as displayed in the official briefing’s grand sense of urgency. The White House anticipates that Russia will attempt to stage, possibly as early as September, pseudo-referendums leading to annexation of Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine: Donetsk and Luhansk writ large, as well as Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia. Russia would, in that case, be expected to follow the model of the 2014 Crimean “referendum,” when Russia wrested Crimea away from Ukraine (Whitehouse.gov, July 19).
Open-source evidence of Russian intentions to annex, in one form or another, Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia regions, occupied since March, has been quite conspicuous (see EDM, April 7, 12, 13). Moscow is also seriously considering folding Ukraine‘s Donetsk and Luhansk territories (currently recognized as “independent” by the Kremlin) directly into the Russian Federation.
Russia has promptly, if obliquely, confirmed The White House’s assessment of the situation. An official reply by the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, refers to the territories in question at least three times as “liberated territories,” thus indicating that Russia considers the occupation as justified and sustainable. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told TV host Margarita Simonyan: “This is about far more than the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, it is also about the Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia regions and also about some other Ukrainian territories” (Russia Today; RIA Novosti, July 20). Simonyan is credited with co-authoring the “Russian Donbas doctrine” (Russia Today, January 28, 2001).
Some Russian-installed officials in the occupied territories have considered staging referendums on September 11, symbolically coinciding with Russia’s own countrywide local elections scheduled to be held on that day. The target date will, however, most likely be missed in the occupied territories. Donetsk and Luhansk possess the machinery for staging pseudo-referendums, but ongoing combat actions do not allow this. Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia are currently experiencing only low-intensity combat, but the regions lack the political and logistical machinery for staging any sort of voting.
Possible referendum dates remain under discussion, with some Russian officials suggesting next year. Moreover, the 2014 “Crimea playbook” is not Russia’s sole template. The Kremlin has, in recent years, resorted either to referendums, elections, or both to achieve similar purposes (Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 and subsequent “elections”).
Moscow has installed civilian-military administrations (CMAs) in Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia regions. (The Zaporyzhzhia CMA is provisionally seated in Melitopol.) The heads of these CMAs started in late May 2022 publicly calling for those territories’ accession to Russia by way of referendum. The officials have, implausibly, cited popular demand and even pressure from below for this undertaking.
Vladimir Saldo, head of the Kherson region CMA, called for this region to become the Kherson Oblast of the Russian Federation, through a referendum to be held in 2023 (TASS, May 9, 20; RIA Novosti, May 29). Saldo and his team want this territory to preserve its oblast status in Russia, alongside a Zaporozhye Oblast in Russia, not to be merged with other administrative-territorial entities there.
Yevgeny Balitsky, appointed in early July 2022 as head of the Zaporyzhzhia region CMA, lost no time announcing that a referendum would be held in September 2022 (evidently to coincide with the aforementioned September 11 plans) and even set up an electoral commission to administer the referendum. The goal is for this territory to “become the Zaporozhye Oblast within any federal district of the Russian Federation” (Interfax, July 14; TASS, July 14, 15). The conclusion alludes to a possible tie-up of this oblast with Crimea or Kherson Oblast into a Russian federal district.
Balitsky’s statements have repeatedly been publicized by Russian state television channels (Rossiya-24 TV, July 14; Russian TV Channel One, July 17). If such promotion continues, it will whet public expectations of Russian territorial aggrandizement and generate pressures on the Kremlin to meet such expectations. The time remaining until September 11 (Russia’s local elections) will show whether Moscow embarks on this course.
Radical elements in both the Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia CMAs had, initially, called for immediate accession to Russia without referendums. These elements argued that the “people’s will” was already known, not needing confirmation by referendum; that the outside world would not recognize such referendums anyway, as Crimea’s case has shown; and that Russian President Vladimir Putin could settle the whole matter by presidential decree. The most vocal exponents of this view, Kirill Stremousov in the Kherson CMA and Vladimir Rogov in the Melitopol-based Zaporyzhzhia CMA, are local Russophile militants of the leftist persuasion. Initially out of synch with Moscow, they seem recently to have been brought into line.
Moscow has, since May, officially come out for referendums to be held in these territories when the time is ripe, not necessarily soon. The Kremlin insists on formal procedures to be punctiliously followed: electoral commissions, voter lists, proper formulation of the referendum‘s question, voting and petitioning Russia’s Federation Council to accept the local “expression of the people’s will” by ratifying those territories‘ accession to the Russian Federation. The obvious implication is that the process will take these territories into Russia. Nevertheless, Russian officials work arduously to avoid the impression of urging referendums and prejudging the outcome in their public comments. They bend over backward suggesting that the referendum initiatives are local ones and that Moscow merely responds by deferring to them.
Thus, according to Russian Federation Council Chair Valentina Matvienko, “If the residents of Donetsk, Luhansk, and certain regions of Ukraine deem it necessary to express their will by referendums, Russia will respect their will. They should themselves decide the question of the status of these territories. … If referendums are held, the Federation Council will consider the issue of their unification with Russia” (Interfax, July 7).
Moscow has yet to decide how to fit its use of the “referendum weapon” in Ukraine into the wider context of Russia’s own policy toward Ukraine and the West. Referendums, once staged on Russian terms and capped by a Russian-bestowed status (“independent republic,” or Russian sovereign territory), preclude further negotiations. Moscow, however, may want to keep the option of negotiations open, to itself and the West, for the time being.