Service members of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic vote during a referendum in Luhansk Service members of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic vote during a referendum in Luhansk 

Ukraine's occupied regions hold referendum amid counteroffensive

Russian-backed authorities in four occupied regions of Ukraine are holding referendums on whether to join Russia. The vote comes as Ukrainian forces rush toward these territories in a major counter-offensive.

By Stefan J. Bos

Seven months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, voters in occupied territories started rushing to the polls Friday. They were told to decide whether they wanted to join Russia in referenda not recognized by Kyiv and the international community.

But whatever the outcome of what Kyiv calls a sham election, the region's future remains uncertain. Backed by the West, Ukrainian troops have already recaptured thousands of square kilometers of territory seized by Russia since the February 24 invasion.

And they are quickly approaching areas in the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions that make up Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas, where voting takes place.

Moscow-backed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions in the south also called referenda, with Ukrainian troops moving nearby. Kyiv says it is determined to recapture all of Ukraine, even the Crimea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, following a controversial referendum after occupying the area.

The latest battlefield losses prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to mobilize an additional 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine despite mounting public protests against that decision.

Additionally, Putin has threatened to use nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction if he feels that Russia's territorial integrity is threatened.

That is why the hastily organized referenda are essential to him.

Missing motivation

By annexing another 15 percent of Ukraine, Russia can claim its territory is under attack from weapons provided by the NATO military alliance and other Western countries to Ukrainian forces.

Yet, with protests mounting and several of his top allies and generals killed, it remains unclear whether there's enough appetite within Russia's military and political circles to use the nuclear option or fight much longer.

With the support of hundreds of thousands of extra troops, Russia still hopes to defend a front line of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) with its more traditional military style.

Questions remain whether many of these troops will show the same motivation to fight as Ukrainians have in the recent counter-offensive. 

Unexpected conscription

There have been tears, including with wives and mothers saying farewell to the men they love. "I didn't expect that I had to leave today. Nobody told me anything in the morning," a young man said.

"They gave me the draft notice that I should be here by 3 pm. Later an enlistment officer came and said we are leaving now. So I called my parents, brother, and friends to tell them they were taking me away even though I am still studying," he added.

And with many Russians fleeing to avoid the draft, the Kremlin has now criminalized desertion, surrender, and going absent without leave during mobilization.

It comes as a United Nations commission says it has found evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, listing bombings, torture, and sexual violence. The Commission of Inquiry was set up in May to investigate claims of war crimes amid the discovery of mass graves in several parts of recaptured territories. Moscow denies wrongdoing.

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23 September 2022, 17:04