Russian leaders welcome referendum result as Ukraine conflict deepens

MOSCOW – Russian leaders have been quick to welcome the results of referendums that pave the way for occupied regions of Ukraine to be incorporated into the Russian Federation, escalating the conflict with Kiev and Western governments who have dismissed the votes as a sham.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, wrote on Telegram on Wednesday that the result would “save millions of people from genocide” after results published on Tuesday evening claimed to show that Russian-controlled Luhansk and the regions of Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia overwhelmingly supported staying part of Russia.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin had accused the Ukrainian government of discrimination and violence against Russian speakers as justification for launching an invasion of Ukraine, a charge Kyiv dismissed as false.

“The results are clear,” wrote Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister, now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, on Telegram on Tuesday evening. “Welcome home to Russia!”

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky told the UN Security Council by video from Kiev on Tuesday that “any annexation in the modern world is a crime, a crime against all states that consider the inviolability of borders to be decisive for themselves.”

A man casting his vote during the referendum on joining Russia in Luhansk, Ukraine, on Tuesday.


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/Associated Press

The Moscow-installed leaders of all four territories on Wednesday confirmed their desire for the regions to become part of Russia. The Kremlin has already recognized the self-declared independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. The pro-Russian civil-military administrations of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, controlling only the southern and central regions of each, were expected to declare the region’s independence within administrative boundaries. Zaporizhzhia’s capital is still controlled by Kiev.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters this week that Russian authorities are ready to incorporate the new regions into Russia. Pro-Kremlin analysts said the referendums were a necessary step toward that goal, despite the disdain Western leaders have shown for a voting process undermined by allegations of coercion and threats of violence.

“[The results] are significant because they provide a political basis for making decisions about the incorporation of these regions into Russia,” said Sergei Markov, director of the pro-Kremlin Institute for Political Studies in Moscow.

The path to becoming part of Russia is likely to follow the playbook used for Crimea, which Russia annexed after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014, following a referendum in which 97% of voters favored joining Russia, according to official results. The peninsula was incorporated into Russia less than a week after the referendum that approved it, although most of the world’s nations do not recognize Crimea as part of Russia.

A ballot marked ‘Yes’ during the referendum on joining Russia in Luhansk, Ukraine, on Tuesday.


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/Associated Press

In accordance with Russian law, Mr Putin must first sign a treaty with the territories seeking to join Russia, after which the deals will be sent to the nation’s constitutional court to ensure they comply with Russian law. If the court finds no violations, Mr Putin would send the treaty to the State Duma for a vote.

If it is adopted, the Federal Council must approve the legislation. Mr. Putin would then formally declare the Ukrainian regions to be part of Russia. That process of annexation could start as early as this week, analysts have said, although the Kremlin has not confirmed any dates.

Pavel Salin, a political analyst based in Moscow, said that while the annexation is pending, Mr Putin has given the West an opportunity to engage in dialogue with Russia about scaling back its support for Ukraine.

“He created this new situation to get the Anglo-Saxon bloc to resume contacts,” Mr. Salin, referring to Kyiv’s supporters, including the United States and Great Britain

Konstantin Ivashchenko, left, the appointed pro-Russian mayor of Mariupol, Ukraine, visits a polling station as people cast their ballots in the referendum on Tuesday.


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stringer/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Annexation will lead to the full Russification of the Ukrainian territories captured by Moscow, analysts say. Some regions had started distributing Russian passports before the referendums. Schools have been issued Russian curricula. The hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency, would be replaced by the Russian ruble, analysts say. The leader of Zaporizhzhia said on Tuesday that the hryvnia would be gone from his region by the end of the year.

“The situation will only change fundamentally for the inhabitants of these regions,” said Mr. Markov. “Most importantly, these people will have a full guarantee that Russia will not trade them for anything in case of peace talks,” he said.

After staging referendums that were widely criticized as a sham, Russia is moving to annex about 15% of Ukraine’s territory. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains how the process unfolded and why the attempted land grab is crucial to Vladimir Putin’s war strategy. Illustration: Elizabeth Smelov

Annexing the territories would also increase Russia’s population by around five million to six million. The country’s declining numbers have been a concern for Mr Putin, who in recent years has passed laws offering financial compensation to women for having more children.

Russia will have to find money in its budget to support these regions. On Wednesday, Mr Peskov downplayed questions about whether the country would have enough money. Moscow still covers two-thirds of Crimea’s budget, according to Russian-installed officials in Crimea.

The increased population will also provide a pool from which to draw additional troops to fight for Russia in Ukraine, analysts said. Last week, Mr Putin warned that Moscow might use nuclear weapons if the West attacks Russian territory. He also ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine, triggering an exodus from the country of men trying to escape being mobilized.

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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