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03:01 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Pro-Russian authorities have held so-called referendums in four regions of Ukraine over recent days and, while the votes are illegal and have been universally dismissed as “a sham” by Ukraine and Western nations, there are fears that they could create a pretext for a new, dangerous stage in the war.

They come with the seven-month conflict at a tipping point. Rapid counterrattacks by Ukraine have dramatically swung momentum on the battlefield away from Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is expected to escalate his country’s invasion in response.

That means the “votes” – and the bogus results that Russia and its local allies have claimed – are an important step in Russia’s faltering effort to seize control in Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about the referendums, and what comes next.

What’s happening in parts of occupied Ukraine?

Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine staged votes on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders from Friday to Tuesday. The polls, which are contrary to international law, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas.

On Wednesday, with all “votes” counted, authorities in those regions predictably claimed that residents had overwhelmingly agreed to become part of Russia.

The figures touted supposedly from 99.23% approval in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to 87.05% in Russian-controlled Kherson. Officials in the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Russian-held Zaporizhzhia also claimed nearly a universal verdict.

But those numbers bear little resemblance to reality. An exclusive CNN poll of Ukrainians conducted in February, just before Russia’s invasion, found that no region of the country had more than one in five people backing Ukrainian unification with Russia.

And even in the east – the most pro-Russian area of Ukraine – less than a quarter of Ukrainians said regions that felt more Russian should be allowed to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia.

The poll found 18% of Ukrainians in the east – including the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – agreed with the proposition “Russia and Ukraine should be one country,” while 16% of Ukrainians in the south, which included the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, supported it.

The “result” of the votes was probably decided long before any ballots were cast. “Russia’s referenda are a sham – a false pretext to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law, including the United Nations Charter,” US President Joe Biden said last week.

Questions on the ballot varied slightly in each of the four regions holding votes. Together, the four regions make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory.

Residents of the four regions who had moved to Russia were also eligible to vote.

The moves follow a similar playbook to Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. A referendum organized there, which officially saw 97% of voters back annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.

This time around, some regions plan to announce their results sooner than others. Voting was scheduled to end on Tuesday. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce results the day after voting finishes, whereas in Kherson, authorities will wait for five days after polls close.

That means the claimed outcomes will have been announced by the beginning of next week. They could come sooner, however. The UK Ministry of Defense has said that “there is a realistic possibility” that Putin will use his address to Russia’s parliament on Friday to “formally announce the accession of the occupied regions of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”

What do we know about the ‘voting’?

Reports from the places affected suggest that voting is being done essentially – and in some cases, literally – at gunpoint.

Serhii Hayday, the Ukrainian head of the Luhansk region military administration, said that authorities were going door to door, trailed by armed guards, to collect votes.

“If someone checked ‘against’ joining Russia, the data is recorded in some notebooks,” Hayday said on Telegram. “Rumors are being spread that people who vote against are being taken away somewhere. This is deliberately done to intimidate the local population.”

A service member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic walks past a banner on the doors of a polling station.

Russian-backed authorities claimed a massive turnout in the elections, reporting numbers that Kyiv and Western observers have scoffed at.

Meanwhile, for Ukrainians in occupied territories where voting took place, the means of escape are perilous. The occupied area of Kherson has been “completely closed for entry and exit” following its “vote,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Tuesday.

Travel in and out of the occupied portion of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region is also very difficult for civilians and near-impossible for men aged 18 to 35, Ukraine’s National Resistance Center – a unit of the defense ministry – claimed.

What does Russia want from these so-called referendums?

In terms of international law, the referendums will achieve nothing because the global community is steadfastly refusing to accept them.

But back home, Putin will be able to claim that the will of occupied Ukrainians is to belong to Russia – thereby giving some false pretext to his efforts to claim that territory as Moscow’s.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in recent days that Russia has already decided in advance what will happen after these referendums are finished, stating that by “the end of the month, Russia’s intention will be to formalize the annexation of the four regions into the Russian Federation.”

That has raised concerns that Putin will seek to escalate the war once the “results” are announced. A successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces has pushed Russia back significantly in northeast Ukraine. Western official