After the Kremlin announced its support for referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions seeking annexation to Russia, it became evident that President Vladimir Putin was following the blueprint seen eight years ago, in Crimea.
Eastern Ukraine saw the beginning of the conflict in 2014, when a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, leading to Russia annexing the region.
On February 27, 2014, Russian forces took control of Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and was transferred to Ukraine in Soviet times. A referendum on joining Russia was held on March 16.
Crimea’s leaders declared a 97 percent vote to secede from Ukraine and Russia formally annexed the region on March 21, less than a month after the conflict started.
Kiev and the West said the referendum violated Ukraine’s constitution and international law — a stance they maintain to this day, further calling the referendums in the four Ukrainian regions “illegal”.
The self-styled Donetsk (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republics (LPR), which Moscow recognised as independent states just before its “special military operation” on February 24, held referendums on joining Russia from September 23 to 27.
The Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, which were yet to be recognised as independent states by Russia, also held votes of their own during the same time period.
Pro-Russian leaders in the four aforementioned regions, meanwhile, declared that an overwhelming majority of voters have chosen to join Russia in the referendums, which critics of the Kremlin say were hastily organised.
As per the published results, 99.23 percent in Donetsk, 98.42 percent in Luhansk, 87.05 percent in Kherson and 93.11 percent in Zaporizhzhia voted in favour of joining Russia.
Ukraine, on the other hand, disputed this claim, calling it “naive blackmail” and “a sign Russia was running scared”. “This is what the fear of defeat looks like. The enemy is afraid, and obfuscates primitively,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said.
It is important to mention that Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only around 60 percent of the Donetsk region in Russian hands.
So, what happens now?
President Putin has said he will never abandon the residents of these areas. If Moscow goes ahead with the annexation then Ukraine — and potentially its Western backers too — would, from a Russian perspective, be fighting against Russia itself.
That would raise the risk of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the NATO military alliance, especially when NATO members are supplying arms and giving intelligence to Ukraine.
As such, a rushed Russian move to formally annex another big chunk of Ukrainian territory is being seen as a major escalation.
Once the annexation is officially through, Ukraine would lose an area amounting to more than 90,000 square kilometres, or about 15 percent of its total land area — equal to the size of Hungary or Portugal.