What Does Russia Expect from the Referendums?

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On September 23, 2022, Russia held referendums in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine. This development demonstrates that Russia is using the same strategy in the ongoing conflict as it used in the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Following the referendums, it was revealed that 98.42% of voters in Luhansk, 99.23% in Donetsk, 93.11% in Zaporizhzhia, and 87.05% in Kherson approved of joining Russia.[1]

At this point, it should be mentioned that the contested referendums violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty by violating both the United Nations (UN) Charter, which is international law, and the Ukrainian Constitution. As a matter of fact, Article 73 of the Ukrainian Constitution mandates that any referendum, including the accession of a part of the country to another state, must take place across the entirety of Ukraine.[2] The referendum is not in accordance with the laws of Russia either. Russian law also states that any referendum must be announced at least four months in advance.[3] So why did Russian President Vladimir Putin strive to speed up the procedure in an effort to make it happen?

Putin may have first wished to dispel the somber tone brought on by the start of Russia’s retreat following the Ukrainian army’s successful operations in Kharkov. Furthermore, it may be argued that the Russian president’s responses at the Samarkand Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) influenced his decision. The SCO Summit demonstrated that Russia’s reputation has suffered as a result of the escalating tensions and its inability to secure tangible victories. Therefore, Russia is becoming more isolated with each passing day. He chose to escalate the war in this isolating setting. Because the liberation of Balakliya, Kupiansk, and Izyum by the Ukrainian Army caused a lull in the fighting and undermined the Russian people’s confidence that the war could be won, Putin decided to convey that Russia is still capable of winning the war.

The referendums’ purpose, as anticipated, is to give Russian society a justification for continuing the war. At the same time, referendums also provide basis for partial mobilization because, as a result of the referendums, it is now claimed that the relevant regions have joined the Russian territories. Thus, the Kremlin administration asks for the Russian people to protect their borders.

Putin’s referendum decision, however, was also influenced by the current international conjecture. The United States (USA) midterm elections will take place on November 8, 2022, and the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held on October 16, 2022. Undoubtedly, these elections will also affect Russia’s Ukraine policy. In a way, Putin raises the stakes because he does not want to be caught unprepared for the possible bargaining atmosphere following the key elections. In other words, Russia sees referendums as a tool. However, it should not be ignored that the international community and especially Western states condemns Moscow’s actions.

Moscow viewed the referendums as a measure to halt the offensive of the Ukrainian army which means, Russia will portray Ukrainian activities against the referendum regions as an attack on its own territory and will attempt to have a deterrent effect. Dmytro Kuleba, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, issued the following comment on the subject:[4]

“Sham referendums will not change anything. Neither will any hybrid ‘mobilization’. Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them.”

In response to Kuleba’s assertion, Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, cited the country’s nuclear doctrine and declared that all Russian laws and doctrines would be applicable in the areas where the referendums were held.[5] In truth, this assertion may be seen as a ploy to use nuclear deterrence to keep the areas under Russian control.

However, protests against the mobilization decision were organized in numerous Russian regions, particularly the North Caucasus. Contrary to what the Kremlin believes, these referendums will not persuade Russian society to enter a war; rather, the protests raise the possibility that it could create more instability in the nation. The absence of a robust protest culture in Russia is also well known. Street demonstrations are therefore not expected to rise. Therefore, it is doubtful that something will happen to cause the Moscow government to reverse course.

As a result, the Russian-organized referendums demonstrate that Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty have been breached. It is therefore against international law as well. However, it appears that Moscow is trying to force Kiev to accept the situation as it is with its move to intensify the conflict and impose its nuclear deterrence. It would not be unexpected if referendums were staged across the nation to force Ukraine to impose this status quo.

[1] “Херсонской и Запорожской областях подвели итоги референдума”,,, (Date of Accession: 29.09.2022).

[2] “Референдумы” на захваченных Россией территориях Украины-почему они незаконны”, BBC News,, (Date of Accession: 29.09.2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Псевдореферендумы: Ни Украина, ни международное сообщество не признают их ничтожные результаты”, Русская служба «Голоса Америки», ,544.html , (Date of Accession: 29.09.2022).

[5] “Ядерная доктрина РФ будет распространяться и на “новые” территории – Лавров”, Украинская правда, /, (Date of Accession: 29.09.2022).

Aidana BAKTYBEK KYZY, 1999 yılında Bişkek'te doğmuştur. BAKTYBEK KYZY, 2022yılında Sakarya Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nden mezun olmuştur. Halihazırda yüksek lisans eğitimini Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nde devam ettirmektedir.