Discover the new supersized Russia: the « referendum » casts a long and ominous shadow

If things weren’t bad enough already, imagine a meaner, more menacing – and bigger – Russia, to boot.

That’s the promise and the threat that flow from the results of a separation vote announced Tuesday in four Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories. It’s a vote that took place in a war zone, with ballots sometimes cast in full view of armed Russian soldiers; a vote whose foreign observers – normally expected to provide unbiased legitimacy – were journalists employed by or closely tied to the Russian state.

Whether one accepts the result or ignores it as the product of a referendum process that was neither free nor fair, it marks a new chapter in the seven-month dispute that is increasingly being hunted down. by a dark, nuclear shadow.

The opening lines of this chapter were a celebratory welcome to the citizens who remain in the seized Ukrainian territories – many, with the means and the inclination, have long since fled – who should be part of a supersized Russia.

“The referendums are over. The results are obvious,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, wrote on the Telegram instant messaging service. « Welcome to Russia! »

The annexation of Ukrainian territory allows Russia to celebrate the reconstitution of Novorossiya, a historic territory that existed in Imperial Russia and now provides strategic land access to the Black Sea and its ports.

The situation « will radically change from a legal point of view, from the point of view of international law », Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday, « with all the relevant consequences for the purpose of protecting and ensuring security in these territories ».

The formalities will indeed move quickly from here.

After the votes were counted to leave Ukraine and join Russia, Donetsk (whose Russian-installed government reported 99.23% voted for), Luhansk (98.42%), Kherson (87.05% ) and Zaporizhzhia (93.11%), the heads of the four regions were due to travel to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and present their call to join Russia on behalf of the majority of the 4.83 million people who, according to the organizers of the elections, had participated.

Russia’s legislative body, the State Duma, will discuss annexing the territories on Wednesday or Thursday, while the Federation Council, Russia’s top legislative body, will meet early next week. But there is no question of not accepting occupied Ukrainian regions in Russia.

“If there is such a willingness on their part to join the Russian Federation, of course we will support it,” Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matvienko said. « We don’t give up on ours. »

Similar words were spoken by Ukrainian leaders about those in the occupied territories, with equal conviction.

A ballot marked 'Yes' - in favor of joining Russia - is seen in a ballot box September 27 during the referendum in Luhansk, Ukrainian territory controlled by Russian-backed forces. Voting began on Friday.

Bohdan Kordan, professor of international relations and expert on Ukraine at the University of Saskatchewan, said that the annexation of more Ukrainian territories by Russia (the southern peninsula of Crimea having been taken in 2014) is a deliberately provocative move by Moscow that challenges the West. and accepted principles of international law.

After a breakthrough by the Ukrainian army, which regained some 6,000 square kilometers of Russian-occupied land in northeastern Ukraine and liberated dozens of towns and villages, the votes and eventual annexation seem be a backlash that kills all hope of a negotiated end to the war.

« (Russia has) annexed someone’s territory, basically saying that the territorial integrity of a state doesn’t matter anymore, » Kordan said. “There is no point in having a diplomatic conversation about the issues.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that the votes should be punished with « powerful sanctions » against Russia « and separate clear signals about what will happen if the Russian Federation recognizes these contrived ‘referendums’. »

Ukraine will continue the fight to regain control of its country regardless of the results of the referendum, Kordan said. « Zelenskyy and others basically said, ‘That doesn’t mean anything.' »

But it means something for Russia.

People walk past a billboard displaying a soldier and a Russian flag and reading

In Kakhovka, a town on the banks of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, Russian-appointed administrator Pavel Filipchuk on Tuesday called on Putin to act on the results « as soon as possible at the highest level of the Federation of Russia” so that people can be assured of their “security and stability”.

And even before the results were announced, a statue was unveiled in occupied Melitopol of Alexander Nevsky – a historic Kievan Rus’ military commander legendary for repelling Western invaders in the 11th century.

Moscow has warned that cities such as Kherson, Melitopol, Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the other towns and villages slated for annexation by Russia, will be considered Russian territory and protected as such, just as much as Saint Petersburg. and Vladivostok and Sochi.

And so in theory, at least, any attempt to retake soon-to-be Russian land by military force would pose as much of an existential threat – the red line for a Russian nuclear response – as an invading army marching on Moscow itself. same.

Putin hinted at the bigger stakes ahead when he pledged last week that Russia would “use all means at its disposal to protect Russia and its people.”

Medvedev expressed this threat on Tuesday in concrete terms.

« Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, in pre-determined cases, » he wrote on Telegram, noting that Russia would go nuclear if first attacked with a nuclear weapon or s there was an indefinite threat to « the very existence of our state. »

Medvedev added that he was convinced that the West was aware of the very real risks of nuclear escalation.

“They understand that if the threat against Russia exceeds the established danger limit, we will have to react. Without asking anyone’s permission, without long consultations. And it’s definitely not a bluff,” he wrote.

People carrying Ukrainian flags march towards Russian army trucks during a rally against Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine, Sunday, March 20, 2022.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan revealed last weekend that his country was engaged in talks with Russia over the nuclear threat. He said on NBC’s « Meet the Press » program that Moscow had been warned of the « catastrophic consequences » if it deployed nuclear weapons.

But Medvedev, a former Russian president who, by the nature of his seat on the Security Council, should be aware of the Moscow-Washington talks, predicted that the United States and NATO would not even intervene on behalf of Ukraine if Russia decides to launch a nuclear strike.

“Demagogues overseas and in Europe will not perish in a nuclear apocalypse. Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict,” Medvedev wrote. « It would be nice if the authorities in Kyiv at least partially realized this sad conclusion. »

Kordan said Putin’s nuclear saber slashes must be taken seriously — even though they will not and cannot change Zelensky’s course in the war.

« You have a dictator and a dictator by definition is someone who knows no bounds, so the possibility of using nuclear weapons is there, » he said.

“From the Ukrainians’ point of view, whether it’s a referendum or nuclear weapons, it doesn’t matter. The problem for them is that they have nowhere to go. It’s an existential threat. Either they win this or they don’t survive anyway.


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