On the evening of September 19, the so-called "public chambers" of the "LNR" and "DNR" called on "heads" of their "republics" Leonid Pasechnik and Denis Pushilin to immediately organize a "referendum" on joining the russian federation. The ringleaders immediately, "at the request of the public", began preparations for the "expression of will". The very next day, like a snowball, messages on the same topic began to appear from the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, as well as from the State Duma of the russian federation. This showed the coordination of all these actions from moscow.
The motives that guided the leadership of the russian federation when entering this gamble also appeared: "Today is a referendum, tomorrow - recognition as part of the russian federation, the day after tomorrow - strikes on the russian territory become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with russia, untying russia's hands in all respects", - russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan stated, hinting at nuclear weapons.
As a result, pseudo-referendums on joining the occupied territories of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts to the russian federation were scheduled for September 23-27.
Journalist and analyst Serhiy Harmash explained in an interview with OstroV why the russian authorities decided to hold "referendums" right now, what the consequences of this might be and why Ukrainians should not be afraid of putin's use of nuclear weapons.
- The occupiers are preparing to hold referendums on the entry of the occupied territories into the russian federation on September 23-27. Why now?
- I think this is putin's emotional reaction to our successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts (for example, Bilohorivka was liberated on September 20). Also, to the humiliation that the russian dictator has recently experienced in the international arena. The leaders of the CSTO countries have ceased to hear putin, russia is being openly ousted from the Caucasus and Central Asia by its own "partners", Turkey and China. I think it was the first time he faced such humiliation, as they say, on all fronts at once, and this made him act emotionally, without pragmatic calculation.
The fact that the gamble with referendums is quite spontaneous is evidenced by the fact that literally on September 7, when the Ukrainian counter-offensive was just beginning, General Secretary of putin's United Russia Turchak named a specific possible referendum date for the first time - November 4 and, suddenly, two weeks later, September 23-27 is abruptly announced. What is more - three days before the date. Moreover, I have already read on September 21 that it turns out that almost 500 polling stations had already been created by the Zaporizhzhia collaborators! And that's over one night!
So, only one person can force events without any logic - this is putin. This suggests that the kremlin is panicking and the assessment of the situation is absolutely inadequate to reality.
Now there are no objective "legitimate", even from the point of view of russian legislation, grounds for holding these referendums.
How can a referendum be held in the "DNR" if half of its territory is not controlled by the "authorities" of this pseudo-republic? In the "LNR", also not the entire territory is under the control of the occupiers. I'm not talking about the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, because this completely contradicts even the russian law on the procedure for adoption in the russian federation. It clearly states that only a foreign state can initiate its inclusion in the russian federation. Are there such states as "Kherson oblast" or "Zaporizhzhia oblast"? It is clear that they can proclaim them following the results of the same referendums. But referendums can only physically take place in the territory they control - they want to arrange a door-to-door voting - and at the same time, the Gauleiters announced that they would declare their "states" within the administrative boundaries of the oblasts. So what about the territory they don't control? TASS reported on September 21, with reference to the "electoral committee of the region", that "more than 500 thousand people will participate in the referendum in the Zaporizhzhia oblast". So excuse me, but the population of the Zaporizhzhia oblast is more than 1 million 600 thousand people… This is an obvious initial profanation and delegitimization of "referendums" even in the russian perception, I'm not even talking about the world community. What about the Donetsk oblast, where there is not only no control of the occupiers over the territory, but also a mass evacuation of the population took place? Who will vote for reunification with russia?... In general, the impression is that this performance is played out not so much for annexation, but for other purposes.
- What, for example?
- To blackmail the West and put pressure on Kyiv in order to negotiate on favorable positions. Putin believes that after he declares these territories part of the russian federation, Ukraine and the West should be afraid of a war with russia and stop reconquering them. Otherwise, putin, allegedly, can use nuclear weapons.
- Do you believe in such a threat?
- No. I think putin knows that not only russia has nuclear weapons… And its use will make it a complete outcast in the world. This is clearly seen from the statements even of China and India, which today, in fact, support it. In addition, our Western partners have repeatedly made it clear that the use of nuclear weapons will lead to an adequate response, regardless of the reason for russia to launch this strike.
But the question is not what I believe in, but what putin believes in. It seems to me that he is still in the thrall of illusions caused by our Crimean disgrace in 2014, when we gave up the peninsula without resistance. Everyone was afraid of the war with "nuclear russia" at that time. He believes that this threat can work now. However, it cannot. The types of weapons provided to us by the West and our attacks on the Crimea and objects in the border areas of russia say that this threat will no longer affect either the West, or, especially, Kyiv.
I am sure that the annexation of the occupied territories after the so-called referendums will in no way affect the liberation of these oblasts. Our main Western partners, and these are, at least, the USA and Great Britain, who have actually already made a bet on the weakening of the russian federation, will not be affected by these decisions either. Nobody recognizes these referendums.
- I think that putin should also understand this…
- I do not think he understands. We all believed that he should understand the range of the consequences of a full-scale aggression against Ukraine and predicted that the russian federation would fight only via the "DNR"/"LNR" in order to avoid sanctions. However, February 24 showed that he is capable of making obviously reckless decisions under the influence of his inadequate perception of the world.
Moreover, many people in russia and in the occupied Donbas do not understand this either, because they, like him, live in their own information space that distorts reality. And that's the difference between us.
Last night, I watched how everyone in russia and the Donbas was nervous, waiting for putin's address and wondering what he would say. This is because his words will have a direct impact on their destinies. I could not care less about his speech, because putin’s decisions will not affect me in any way. He is already at war with my country, either a russian missile or a russian bullet can already kill me and he will not make it any worse. We and those countries that support us already have only one way out – our victory. Bets have already been made. And the stakes are already too high! Therefore, all his further decisions can only affect the lives of russians and his allies. Moreover, the impact is unambiguously negative. After all, it was their mobilization that began, not ours. Their economy will spend more money on the war, not ours. Additional sanctions will be imposed on them. They will officially enter into a state of war with Ukraine and, de facto, the entire civilized world after the annexation of Ukrainian territories. We should take into account that by concentrating on the war with Ukraine, moscow weakens itself on all other geopolitical fronts. For example, russia was forced to withdraw part of its paratroopers from Syria; accept Armenia's loss in Karabakh; tolerate China's humiliating statements about Kazakhstan... Russia is losing its influence in the world in general! And the more it is engaged in the war, the faster these processes will develop and intensify.
Therefore, in this referendums venture, I see signs of either the final atrophy of putin's brain, or some insidious game of his entourage in order to remove him from the political arena as soon as possible and prepare bargaining chips for themselves in secret negotiations with the West.
- In your opinion, the russians who live in an inadequate and unrealistic information space will support the war with Ukraine?
- There are two factors to consider in answering this question. The first factor is that by incorporating the territories where hostilities are taking place, russia is officially entering a full-fledged war with Ukraine, with all the consequences: mobilization and martial law, even if not throughout the entire territory of the federation. But the "special operation" has been going on for seven months. Until recently, people in russia were brought to trial even for saying the word "war". The mobilization was carried out only covertly, and, basically, not in russian oblasts, but in prisons and peripheral regions of the empire. Why? Maybe because the kremlin's strategists know the answer to the question "do russians want this war"?
Actually, the course of this covert mobilization and public opinion polls (especially among young people and both capitals of the russian federation) showed that they do not want it. That is, it is one thing to "fight" with a bottle of beer in front of a computer, and a completely another thing is to sit in the trenches under shelling, when your life is actually in danger. Moreover, the same polls show that the war is supported mainly by people of retirement age, but younger men will have to fight instead...
Of course, they will mobilize the announced 300 thousand, but what quality will these personnel be? After all, the ideologically driven and really motivated soldiers have already ended. They could go to war anyway, they did not need mobilization for that. Besides, what are they conscripted for? It must be understood that weapons are more important than infantry in modern warfare. The equipment that delivers, covers and destroys the enemy to ensure the possibility of infantry advancement is important. And it is with this that the russians begin to have problems due to the natural depletion of military resources. Therefore, those whom they mobilize will be just cannon fodder, the same as the forcibly "conscripted" ones in the so-called "DNR"/"LNR". Actually, because the cannon fodder reserves have ended in the occupied areas of Donbas, putin was forced to announce partial mobilization in russia. In general, the "second army in the world" has embarrassed itself in Ukraine! Otherwise, why would he take unpopular steps in a country that does not recognize the fact of the war with Ukraine? This is evidence that the "special operation" is far from going "according to plan".
I want to summarize: holding referendums is either utter stupidity, which is good for Ukraine, because it accelerates the fall of putin and the collapse of the russian federation, or it is a "trap" that putin's entourage set up to remove him from power.
- Do you believe that putin can declare war on Ukraine?
- What will it change? The war has been already going on. What difference does it make whether putin officially announces it or not? For us, it does not matter anymore. Now only the russians will suffer from this.
- There is an opinion that putin can incorporate the "DNR" and "LNR" and start bargaining about the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. Do you believe in it?
- I admit that putin can annex the "LNR", since most of the territory (according to various estimates, 97-98% - ed.) is still occupied, and they may "not notice" that the "referendum" was not held on the entire territory of the "republic". This move could be aimed purely at a domestic audience to show the russians and occupied Ukrainians that russia has managed to gain some victories.
As for the "DNR", I do not understand how he will annex it, if half of the territory is not controlled by russia. With such a referendum, he not only delegitimizes the subsequent annexation, but also neutralizes its value as an argument in negotiations. Therefore, I doubt that the annexation is possible there.
As for the south of Ukraine - I can assume that putin can expect to bargain for it, seeing that the position of russian troops is not the best there. And judging by Erdogan's statements, perhaps he even discussed this option with him. We understand the value of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts for putin: they are, first of all, water and electricity sources for Crimea. He can bargain and withdraw troops from there in exchange for the fact that we, for example, supply the peninsula with water and electricity for 50 years. I think that in the eyes of the russians, this option will look like their victory, that is why it is acceptable for putin. But I do not think that Ukraine will be able to agree to that especially after the "referendums". Therefore, even if putin is considering such plans, such bargaining will not work out and he will eventually have to either annex these territories or recognize the illegitimacy of the referendums. By the way, perhaps they are carried out in such a profane way, so that later, he would have a reason to refuse to recognize them.
- That is, this cannot be pressure on the Ukrainian leadership to sit at the negotiating table?
- This may be pressure on some of our Western partners, but not on the Ukrainian leadership. The people of Ukraine do not agree to the territorial concessions in exchange for peace, even for the annexation only of the "DNR" and "LNR" to the russian federation. Public opinion polls show this clearly. Putin, of course, may have such plans due to inadequate assessment of the situation in our country, but I do not think that such a plan can work.
- Can holding of referendums change the position of the West in the direction of reducing military assistance to Ukraine?
- I do not think that the West will reduce its military aid, especially the UK and the USA. Western countries have staked on Ukraine, and the fundamental goal is the victory over russia. This has been repeatedly voiced by Western leaders. I think that the West is so tired of putin's inadequacy that they already want to finally solve the problem. Therefore, this, on the contrary, will strengthen their assistance to Ukraine.
- Can holding referendums change the situation on the battlefield?
- I do not think so. Most likely, russians will still be focused on holding "referendums" and spreading their propaganda, they will not be up to military activation during this period. And for the AFU, the factor of "referendums" should not mean anything. This is only a political factor, and in our military actions, we must be guided only by military factors. That is, we must proceed from the opportunities that arise on the battlefield, devise these opportunities and use them to liberate our territories. Regardless of whether "referendums" are held there or not, whether the territories are annexed or simply occupied. If the diversion of russians to "referendums" opens up opportunities for our further attacks, we need to use them. If not, we should proceed according to our plans.
- So these "referendums" and possible annexations do not pose serious threats to Ukraine? You do not think that there is some "putin's secret brilliant plan"?
- I do not think that it is worth looking for some hidden "brilliant" political, military or geopolitical underpinnings in this decision. Most likely, this is the usual stupidity of an aging person who lives in his own world and inadequately assesses the situation. I will not be surprised by anything he can do. I do not see what else putin can do to affect Ukraine more than he already had. Even a tactical nuclear strike will not change anything globally. From a strategic perspective, whatever putin does, he is already doing worse for himself and better for Ukraine.
Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV