Following Putin’s standard playbook of territorial annexation adopted earlier in Crimea, Moscow has announced overwhelming support among residents in occupied territories of Ukraine to join Russia.
The results of the pre-ordained referendums held in the Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk and Donetsk will now set the stage for aggressive military action by Russia in the occupied territories.
Announcing the results, Russian-installed election officials said 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region, 87% in the Kherson region, 98% in the Luhansk region and 99% in Donetsk supported the call for joining Russia.
A report by Associated Press explained the lower favorable vote in Kherson due to the presence of a strong Ukrainian underground resistance movement whose members have killed Russian officials and threatened those who considered voting.
Reports say Moscow could declare Russia’s absorption of the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — making up about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory — as soon as Friday.
Russia has already said that the territories once annexed will be under Moscow’s “full protection,” raising the threat of using nuclear weapons if Kyiv, supported by NATO, tries to retake those territories.
“Following those referendums, Russia of course will respect the expression of the will of those people who for many long years have been suffering from the abuses of the neo-Nazi regime,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Saturday.
The foreign minister’s comments followed a warning by former President Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said Thursday that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used to defend territories incorporated into Russia.
Ukraine and the West have already declared the Kremlin-orchestrated referendum as a sham with a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the U.N. has said that remains “fully committed” to Ukraine’s territorial integrity “within its internationally recognized borders.”
Moscow claimed the four-day referendum that began on Friday held defying international condemnation and threats of additional Western economic sanctions, was a vote for self-determination by the regions. However, reports said the voting process was stage-managed and involved coercion and threats with reports of soldiers going door to door and forcing people to vote at gunpoint.
In the virtual address to the U.N., Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “In front of the eyes of the whole world Russia is conducting this so-called sham referendum on the occupied territory of Ukraine. People are forced to fill out some papers while being threatened by submachine guns.”
The announcement of voting came soon after reports of sharp reversals faced by Russian troops on the battlefront, particularly in the northeastern Kharkiv region, and gains made in the south following the counteroffensive launched by Ukrainian forces.
The Kremlin has used a similar tactic in 2014, hurriedly calling a referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region following which it annexed the region, in a move not recognized by most of the world.