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Russia’s Referendum Move: A Herald of a “Declaration of War?”

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President of Russia Vladimir Putin announced on September 21, 2022 that a “partial mobilization” was declared in the country. This decision is of great importance as it shows that the war in Ukraine did not go as well as Moscow expected.[1] Because the Kremlin announced that it would send more soldiers to Ukraine with the decision; thus, had to admit, albeit implicitly, that it had a serious problem in recruiting soldiers.

On the other hand, another statement of Putin that should be considered as important as the decision of “partial mobilization” is that a referendum will be held in Luhansk and Donetsk in the east of Ukraine and in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south of the country. Immediately after the announcement, the Moscow administration started the referendum process in the said regions without wasting any time.[2] Considering that these referendums are planned to be completed by September 27, 2022,[3] it can be argued that the Kremlin is preparing to make some fait accomplis in Ukraine policy and to take the war to a new stage.

To be remembered, Russia described the military intervention against Ukraine on February 24, 2022 as a “Special Operation” and took steps to destroy the military infrastructure of the country in question in the first period of the war. In addition, in this process, he made moves targeting the strategic points of Ukraine. Then, in April 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the second phase of the war had passed.[4]

With the transition to the second phase, the Russian Army turned to the cities in the Eastern Ukraine and the war witnessed a process that was working towards the goal of transforming the country in question into a land state, mainly by preventing Ukraine’s exit to the Black Sea. But over time, it was seen that the Ukrainian Army recovered itself.

Definitely, the effect of military and financial aid from the West in the increase of the resistance capacity of the Kyiv administration cannot be denied. It is also seen that Ukraine has been attacked in various places. Russian forces had to withdraw from some points. In fact, the “partial mobilization” decision is a move based on these developments. With this decision, Putin gave the message that he would escalate the war in Ukraine, and Defense Minister of Russia Sergey Shoigu stated that 300,000 people would be recruited.[5] When this development is considered together with the referendum step, it is very important in that it points to the “third phase” of the war. Because the referendums that are being held herald that Russia is preparing to officially “declare war” on Ukraine.

First of all, Russia has clearly demonstrated that it will implement the model of Crimea in 2014, on the occasion of the referendum decision. This means that, as in this process, various regions of the country will be annexed in violation of international law through referendums to be held in the shadow of the Russian military presence on Ukraine’s territory. As a matter of fact, the first step of this is the referendums in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. It will not be surprising at all that the number of places where referendums will be held will increase in the future.

It is clear that the separatist structures in the relevant regions will decide to join Russia on the occasion of the referendums. It seems that; the Moscow administration will also quickly recognize the referendum decisions. This will allow Moscow to have something to present as a victory by showing its own people that it has “gained ground” at a time when things are going bad on the ground.

Definitely, it is obvious that this new status quo will be against international law at least as much as the status quo in Crimea. But it can be predicted that Russia can benefit this situation. At this point, it is necessary to remind the following statements that Putin used during his “partial mobilization” decision.[6]

“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use absolutely all means in our power to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”

The expressions used by the Russian leader indicate that Russia will characterize the relevant operations as an attack on Russian territory in the face of the operations to be carried out by the Ukrainian Army in the areas to be annexed in order to ensure the territorial integrity of the country. Thus, Russia will both make a preliminary move against Ukraine, which is preparing for a comprehensive offensive, and try to put its actions on a relatively legitimate basis. In this sense, it can be said that in terms of international law, it will be tried to fit the case.

On the other hand, it should be emphasized that Russia’s attempt to annex the regions where the referendum was held will not be recognized by the international community. As a matter of fact, statements from the West are that Ukraine will be supported to continue its operations aimed at ensuring its own territorial integrity and that Russia’s annexations will not be recognized. Therefore, this move will do nothing beyond widening the field of war. The enlargement of the area of the war can basically be interpreted as a threat posed by Russia to Europe. In this context, Serbian President Alexander Vucic’s statement that there may be conflicts around the world can basically be evaluated as[7] Russia could spread conflicts and instability to the Balkans and Belgrade sees this risk.

Currently, European states demand the war to end as soon as possible, with the effect of the energy crisis. However, referendums create an environment that will hinder this expectation. Therefore, although Russia tries to increase the pressure on the West through the energy card and thus accelerate the separation in Europe, the perception of “Russian threat” will continue to strengthen the collective action reflex in Trans-Atlantic relations. In such a scenario, it is possible that even Hungary, which has been subjected to various criticisms since the beginning of the war, will leave aside the reservations it has put forward due to its national interests and turn into an actor that will contribute to the West’s development of a monolithic stance.

Moreover, the referendums, as Russia expected, aside from deepening the crackling voices in Europe; could highlight conflicts in Moscow’s relations with allies such as Beijing and New Delhi. Because, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit held in Samarkand on 15-16 September 2022, SCO members, especially China and India, expressed their desire that the war to end as soon as possible. Putin, on the other hand, preferred to escalate the war rather than ending it. As a matter of fact, Beijing, which has not given as much support to Russia as expected since the beginning of the war, could keep its distance from Moscow considering its commercial relations with the Western states.

In addition, the referendums may force India, which acts together with the United States of America (USA) on platforms such as Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD), to make a choice. Although India tries to maintain its current foreign policy in line with the understanding of versatility in accordance with the tradition of “non-alignment” by taking part in organizations such as the SCO and BRICS, Putin’s move will increase the pressure on New Delhi, and it is predictable that this situation will bring India closer to the USA.

On the other hand, it can be said that the Kremlin will describe the operations to be carried out by the Ukrainian Army in the places where the referendum was held as an attack on “Russian soil”. In this context, Russia is likely to apply to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The warnings of the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus about the escalation of the war stem from this possibility.[8]Because Moscow may try to increase the pressure on the members of the organization, demanding the CSTO to involve in the war. However, this may result in the fact that Moscow, which is isolated by the West, cannot find what it is looking for in the eyes of its allies. In other words, if Russia takes such a step, it will not be able to find what it is looking for from the CSTO members. Because it is possible to foresee that the referendums will not be recognized by the member states.

As it can be understood, Moscow’s call to the CSTO will be rejected by the member states by replying that the war “did not take place on Russian soil.” This will create a situation in which Russia cannot even activate the security organization, of which Russia is the dominant actor.

As a result, Putin has shown that he will escalate the war by taking the decision of “partial mobilization” on September 21, 2022 and announcing that referendums will be held in four regions of Ukraine. With this move, Russia gave the message that the area of the war would expand and aimed to clarify the differences within the West. However, there may be a period in which Moscow will lose its allies, especially China, India and the CSTO members. In other words, referendums may bring about a process in which Russia becomes even more isolated.


[1] Putin Declares ‘Partial’ Mobilization Amid Ukraine Losses, Warns West of Nuclear Response”, The Moskow Times, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/09/21/putin-declares-partial-mobilization-amid-ukraine-losses-warns-west-of-nuclear-response-a78850, (Date of Accession: 21.09.2022).

[2] “Ukrayna Savaşı: İşgal Altındaki Dört Bölge Rusya’ya Katılmak İçin Referandum Düzenleyecek”, BBC Türkçe, https://www.bbc.com/turkce/articles/cg318q3wrvvo, (Date of Accession: 23.09.2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Elena Teslova, “2nd Phase of Ukraine ‘Special Military Operation’ Has Started: Russia”, Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-war/2nd-phase-of-ukraine-special-military-operation-has-started-russia/2567594, (Date of Accession: 23.09.2022).

[5] “Putin Declares…”, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hüseyin Yeltin, “Will Russia Be the Loser of the War in Ukraine?”, ANKASAM, https://www.ankasam.org/will-russia-be-the-loser-of-the-war-in-ukraine/?lang=en, (Date of Accession: 24.09.2022).

[8] Ibid.

Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN
Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN
Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN, 2014 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini, 2017 yılında Giresun Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda sunduğu ‘’Uluslararası Güç İlişkileri Bağlamında İkinci Dünya Savaşı Sonrası Hegemonik Mücadelelerin İncelenmesi’’ başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Doktora derecesini ise 2021 yılında Trakya Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı‘nda hazırladığı “İmparatorluk Düşüncesinin İran Dış Politikasına Yansımaları ve Milliyetçilik” başlıklı teziyle alan Başaran’ın başlıca çalışma alanları Uluslararası ilişkiler kuramları, Amerikan dış politikası, İran araştırmaları ve Afganistan çalışmalarıdır. Başaran iyi derecede İngilizce ve temel düzeyde Farsça bilmektedir.