By incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could justify military escalation as necessary to defend its territory. Putin on Wednesday said Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said.
“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, said in a post on Telegram.
Referendum results in favour of Russia are considered inevitable. The vote in Crimea in 2014, criticised internationally as rigged, had an official result of 97 per cent in favour of formal annexation.
“If this is all declared Russia territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian TV.
The referendums have been denounced by world leaders including US President Joe Biden, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as NATO, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The “sham referenda” are “illegal and illegitimate,” NATO said.
The OSCE, which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal force because they do not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and the areas are not secure.
There will be no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.
Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region Moscow partially occupied in 2014, to be independent states.
Ukraine and the West consider all parts of Ukraine held by Russian forces to be illegally occupied. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only around 60 per cent of Donetsk region in Russian hands.
Ukraine has said the referendums were a sign Russia was running scared. “Any decision that the Russian leadership may take changes nothing for Ukraine,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.
“Of interest to us are strictly the tasks before us. This is the liberation of our country, defending our people and mobilising world support (public opinion) to carry out those tasks.”