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'No Legitimacy Whatsoever': Former French Diplomat On Russia's Plans To Hold Annexation Votes In Occupied Ukraine

Women walk past a billboard displaying pro-Russian slogans in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region in early August. The billboard reads: "We are one people. We are together with Russia."

Russia is pushing ahead rapidly with plans to hold wartime votes in most of the parts of Ukraine its forces control -- as well as some areas they do not control -- in an apparent effort to claim sovereignty over these territories.

Politicians imposed or backed by Moscow abruptly announced this week that referendums on joining Russia would be held in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions, all in southeastern Ukraine, on September 23-27.

Nearly eight months after Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated the war in Ukraine by launching a large-scale invasion, Russian forces hold the Luhansk region in its entirety and parts of the Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions, including the cities of Donetsk and Kherson.

The plans, endorsed by Putin in an address on September 21, have been roundly denounced by global leaders, as well as by Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell said in a September 21 statement that Russia’s leaders “and all those involved in these ‘referenda’ and other violations of international law in Ukraine will be held accountable.”

RFE/RL spoke with former career French diplomat Marie Dumoulin, who now heads the Wider Europe Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, about the pro-Russian referendums, their lack of legitimacy, and what the impact of the move might be.

RFE/RL: What is your view of the proposed annexation referendums in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine in terms of their legitimacy, and how do you respond to Moscow’s arguments that they are merely exercising their right to self-determination?

Marie Dumoulin:
Usually in such conflict situations where there is a claim of one country over the territory of another country and when it is done under international rules, such referendums can take years to be organized under international supervision. We have cases -- in Western Sahara, for example – where since 1975 there has been no agreement about the conditions in which such a referendum could be organized. This is because it involves questions like who is going to take part and under which law will the referendum take place, who is going to supervise, etc.

Here we are dealing with pseudo-referendums which will be organized in a conflict situation when thousands of people have left their homes and so won’t be able to take part in the voting.

We don’t know under which legislation this vote will take place -- most likely, under Russian legislation, but it is Ukrainian territory, so it should take place under Ukrainian law.

Basically, if Russia can’t control these territories by military means, it intends to make them part of its own territory so that the West and Ukraine fear heavy consequences if Ukraine continues its counteroffensive.

Should I continue? Because there are a number of other issues to which there is no answer. It is a situation of war, so you have soldiers who will be around to supervise the vote, which is not the way things should be done. And there is the question of the territory which this vote concerns, because some of the regions that are organizing these pseudo-referendums are only partially controlled by Russia, but the vote will be organized for the entirety of their territory. That is, part of the population of part of the territory will vote for the entire population of the entire territory of these regions. So there is basically no legitimacy whatsoever in these votes.

RFE/RL: Moscow has recognized the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk -- two of the regions holding such annexation votes -- as independent countries. Does this have any bearing on the legitimacy of the voting?

Russia is the only country which has recognized them [Editor’s note: North Korea and Syria have also recognized the two Moscow-backed separatist entities.] According to international law, these are parts of Ukrainian territory. So I don’t see what meaning you can give to the fact that Moscow has recognized these two entities as independent states.

RFE/RL: Moscow has been talking about holding such votes for some time. Are you surprised that this is proceeding now and what might the Kremlin be thinking?

It has to do with the military situation. Moscow has experienced a difficult time since the beginning of September because of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.

Basically, what Russia is trying to achieve is to consolidate its control over these territories -- not by military means, but by political ones -- by organizing these pseudo-referendums and then saying these are parts of Russian territory.

Marie Dumoulin
Marie Dumoulin

What Russia intends to do is to deter further Ukrainian counteroffensives on these territories by saying: ‘This is Russian territory, so if you attack these territories then the consequences will be extreme.’ And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin yesterday [September 21] very clearly mentioned this could go up to the use of nuclear weapons.

Basically, if Russia can’t control these territories by military means, it intends to make them part of its own territory so that the West and Ukraine fear heavy consequences if Ukraine continues its counteroffensive.

RFE/RL: Some of the Baltic leaders have been comparing this move to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states during World War II. What do you think of this analogy or are there others that come to mind that might shed light on the situation?

I am always careful with historical analogies because obviously we are in a different world order now than we were back in 1939 or 1940. I can see why the Baltic states feel that way because it reminds them of their own experience. But we should think in terms of what the international order is now and what consequences this annexation will have on the international order that we have. One of the core principles of this order is the respect for territorial integrity and the non-use of force -- which are core principles in the United Nations Charter. Now one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council is openly violating these principles, which, of course, cannot be good news for any country in the world.

RFE/RL: The Council of Europe has said Russia’s “abuse” of the referendum process is an “attempt to destroy democracy and the rule of law.” Given the seriousness of that warning, how do you think the international community will or should react if Moscow proceeds with these referendums and with the annexation of even more Ukrainian territory?

There can be no recognition of these referendums. These are not referendums, so I wouldn’t even comment about them in terms of democracy or the rule of law. It is not a referendum, and the international community should basically say that and say that they are null and void. We cannot consider that there has been any form of legitimate voting in these regions under the current conditions.