The referendums held in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine have drawn to a close and the votes tallied. Russian-installed election officials in all four regions report overwhelming majorities in favor of becoming part of Russia. The referendums took place in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Combined, these four areas represent fifteen percent of Ukrainian territory. Now, their days of belonging to Ukraine are numbered.
As expected, the referendum results have prompted Russia to move rapidly to annex these regions. Annexation is expected by the end of the week. From that point forward, in the view of the Kremlin, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia will become sovereign Russian soil. Putin will address Russia’s parliament on the subject on Friday and Russian lawmakers could consider annexation legislation as early as next Monday.
Today, Russia has swung back to playing the nuclear threat card, intending to deter Ukraine from moving to retake the territories after the annexation becomes official. As sovereign Russian soil, the territories will be placed under the protection of the entire Russian military arsenal including nuclear weapons. Moscow is also hoping to influence the tenor of the war and warn off the United States and Europe from continuing to contribute significant military and other material support to Ukraine as the war drags on. It is apparent the referendum and coming annexation, coupled with the latest nuclear threats from Moscow appear primed to move the war into a new, potentially more dangerous phase.
Then there is the matter of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline ruptures beneath the Baltic Sea on Monday. It is becoming apparent the leaks were deliberate, which leads to the question of who would be responsible for an act of sabotage on the pipelines. That subject will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.
Staged voting in referendums across Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began on Friday as international condemnation of the referendums increased considerably. The results of these referendums will assuredly be in Russia’s favor. When all is said and done, and the vote totals counted up, Moscow will move to annex the areas of Ukraine now under its control, as well as a swath of territory under Ukrainian control at the moment. This is not a new tactic. Vladimir Putin’s government used it in 2014 after Russian troops entered and took control of Crimea. In that instance, the referendum and subsequent annexation exerted Russia’s will and intentions. The ballots now being handed out in the Russian occupied areas asks a single question: Do you wish to secede from Ukraine and create an independent state that will enter the Russian Federation?
The referendums are being held over four days in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizka. There have been significant made by Russia to ‘Russify’ these regions over recent weeks. Access to Ukrainian cellphone networks and internet services was severed. The ruble has replaced Ukrainian currency and schools now teach a Russia-based curriculum. One fear of residents in the occupied areas is that annexation will lead to conscription into the Russian armed forces. The prospect of Ukrainian forced to fight fellow Ukrainians is not appealing to many of the residents who still remain in the occupied areas.
What comes in the aftermath of the votes being tallied and the eventual annexation has the power of potentially setting this war on a new and inherently more dangerous path. On 27 September, we’ll look closer at what the referendum and subsequent annexations could have in store for Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the world.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will travel to Macedonia this weekend as Macedonians prepare to vote on a referendum at the end of the month. If passed, it would change the name of the country from Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, and open the door to EU and NATO membership for the Balkan nation. Macedonia, and Greece have been locked in a dispute over the former’s name for decades. In June, the two nations reached an agreement to settle the matter. The referendum set for 30 September will determine if Macedonian voters will support the measure or not. Mattis is the latest US official to visit Macedonia. A number of politicians and government officials from the US, and European nations have been visited in recent weeks, encouraging Macedonians to approve the referendum. Nationalists in Macedonia and Greece have bitterly opposed the name change. Last weekend riots broke out in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki as nationalist groups gathered there and demonstrated.
Mattis is concerned about ‘the kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia.’ Russia is less than pleased about Macedonia’s pivot to the West, viewing the referendum as an attempt by NATO and the US to interfere in an area that has traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence. Over the summer, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats after accusing them of bribing an unnamed official to undermine the deal that was agreed to between Skopje and Athens. Russia’s ambassador in Macedonia has recently warned that the country could become a legitimate target if relations between the NATO and Russia do not improve. In July, Macedonia was formally invited to begin the process towards NATO membership. Moscow has opposed the move and this opposition has helped bring about concerns of Soviet mischief aimed at influencing voters in the days leading up to the referendum.
Whether they realize it or not, Catalonia’s separatist politicians have an image problem. Carles Puigdemont and company are emerging as the rapscallions of the Catalan crisis instead of the Spanish government. This is contrary to how Puigdemont and his associates intended the situation to play out. By this point, Madrid was expected to have seen the light and sat down with Catalan’s government officials to negotiate a phased, eventual separation of Catalonia from Spain. To the surprise of Puigdemont, the Spanish government’s response was strikingly different from what was expected. Madrid has stood up to the challenge, and has every intention of fighting tooth and nail to keep Catalonia from breaking off and becoming an independent state. Since the Catalan independence referendum on 1 October, nationalism has taken root across the country. Even in Catalonia, support for independence is not overwhelmingly high, contrary to what the separatists in the Catalan government want people, and the media to believe. In Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia, many residents are critical of their region’s government, accusing the separatist politicians of touching off this crisis purely to achieve their own ends.
Remarks made today by Catalan Vice President Orio Junqueras seem to support the suspicions about separatist politicians. In light of Madrid’s intent to impose direct rule, Junqueras sees a quick declaration of Catalonia’s independence as the region’s next logical step. Speaking on behalf of his Republican Left party’s members, he said the party is committed to “work toward building a republic, because we understand that there is a democratic mandate to establish such a republic.” Whether or not such a mandate exists depends on whom you speak to. Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled against the 1 October referendum making the results invalid. Junqueras, Puigdemont, and Catalan separatists point to those same results as proof that a mandate exists regardless of the Constiutional Court’s ruling.
Catalonia’s political elite has still not come to terms with the severity of the situation before them. Madrid plans to fire all of them and assume control of the region until new elections can be held. Catalan leadership has yet to put together an effective plan to delay, or block Article 155’s from being implemented. Time is running out and a declaration of independence at this point will do nothing but speed up the Spanish government’s plans to impose direct rule in Catalonia and put an end to the subversion once and for all.
When he stepped up to the podium to address Catalonia’s parliament today, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont had three choices to select from. He could declare independence and single handedly plunge his region, and its parent nation of Spain into a veritable civil war. Or he could do the complete opposite and back down entirely, taking the prospect of Catalan independence off the table for good. The third choice was to walk a fine line between the aforementioned options, do neither, and craft a compromise that does not extinguish the flame of regional independence. Politically speaking, this was the most palatable choice available. Not surprisingly, Puigdemont took the compromise approach and laid it out in his address today, but it remains to be seen if he grasps that there was no other choice for him and that his actions since the referendum have dramatically undercut his position.
Puigdemont, in his address, said the people of Catalonia have chosen independence but it should come through a negotiated settlement with Madrid. Catalan officials claim the results of the 1 October independence referendum indicated over 90% of Catalan voters supported independence from Spain. The vote results are not official since the referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish government and Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it. Spanish police prevented voters from entering many polling sites, causing a series of sharp clashes between Catalan voters and police in the streets of Barcelona and surrounding towns.
Puigdemont points to a desire to de-escalate the tension around the issue as his motivation for wanting to negotiate now. This represents a 180 degree turn for a man who was poised to issue a declaration of Catalan independence the moment the referendum ended. There was no talk of negotiating with Madrid in the lead up to 1 October. If the referendum went in favor of independence, Puigdemont gave every indication that Catalonia would secede quickly. When that moment came, though, he found that he had miscalculated the Spanish government and the Spanish people. Catalonia’s separatist designs served to rapidly revive Spanish nationalism. Video and images of Catalan citizens assaulting Spanish police during the referendum has had a dramatic effect on the Spanish populace. The spectacle of Catalonia simply walking away from Spain has touched off a furious wave of nationalism across the country.
Puigdemont did not for one moment believe this was how Spain and its citizens would react. He overplayed his hand and has chosen to pull back and regroup, believing that Madrid will negotiate a Catalan exit in good faith. The current mood in Spain, however, appears to say otherwise.