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Results of sham annexation votes in 4 occupied regions of Ukraine may be known soon

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The results of Russia's annexation vote in four occupied regions of Ukraine may soon be announced. The whole process has been labeled a sham by Kyiv and the West. There are reports of people being forced to vote at gunpoint. Now, this is not a new tactic for the Kremlin. It followed a similar plan when it annexed Crimea in 2014. We're joined now by Thomas de Waal. He's a Russian affairs expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is in Vienna this morning. Thomas, this all appears to be the same playbook that Russia used in Crimea. Are there any significant differences that you see?

THOMAS DE WAAL: It's absolutely the same playbook as we saw in Crimea in 2014. The only difference is that I would say this is even worse. Crimea was relatively peaceful at that point. The Russians basically took it over without a shot being fired and it had a large Russian population. That doesn't justify holding that referendum back there. But this is even more outrageous. This is four areas of Ukraine which - with a war going on and a referendum, which was just dreamed up literally a couple of weeks ago for those places to become part of Russia. And no one is taking it seriously. I mean, eventually the Russians persuaded a few friendly states like, you know, Cuba and Syria to recognize the Crimea referendum back then. But now even relatively friendly states like Kazakhstan are saying that they won't recognize the results of this.

MARTINEZ: So how do we measure, then, it succeeding? Because they've staged these referendums to try and annex close to 15% of Ukraine's territory. So, I mean, will it still be considered a success maybe just to Vladimir Putin?

DE WAAL: Well, I think he's - clearly, Vladimir Putin is not expecting that anyone is going to recognize these referendums internationally. So it's clearly aimed at two audiences or maybe three audiences, Ukraine and the Western countries and also the Russian public. I think obviously he had a grave setback when he lost momentum and lost all that territory they'd captured early in September around the Kharkiv area. And I guess President Putin is trying to regain the initiative, both on the military front with the mobilization cool and on the political front by saying we're not going to give up on these territories that we've captured earlier and, indeed, we're going to absorb them into Russia.

MARTINEZ: Is there any way to glean that maybe what you just mentioned, him - with troops, the additional troops that he's bringing in and this referendum, that he is somehow in trouble in Russia?

DE WAAL: I think it's fair to say he's in trouble. I think we should temper our expectations. I don't think we should expect, you know, a palace coup or the downfall of Mr. Putin soon. But clearly, things are not going to plan, that the plan, you know, was - that this would all be over. It would be a special operation, as he calls it, and not a war. It would be over. They would, you know, decapitate the government in Kyiv and basically have control the whole of Ukraine.

So things are going pretty badly. And I think the dangerous thing now is this mobilization for Mr. Putin. There was a kind of social contract that he's always had, that he's a kind of dictator by consensus, that the public supports him, but he doesn't touch certain aspects of their life. And I would guess that, you know, some of the opinion pollsters suggest that around half of the population in Russia supports the war but doesn't really want to get involved, as it were. They kind of support it sitting in front of their TV screens.

And what we've now seen with this mobilization is it coming into people's families, relatives being called up who thought that they, you know, they'd done their military service and, you know, done their duty, and now it's coming into their homes. And that's where it does - he begins to lose popularity. That doesn't mean he falls, but it means he's more vulnerable amongst the elite. And in certain places in Russia, obviously, there is some - beginning to be some active resistance to this.

MARTINEZ: Any insight into how Russia's being viewed in the four occupied areas?

DE WAAL: Very hard to say, obviously, because they're basically under a kind of information blockade. These are all areas which, you know, a lot of people spoke Russian. It was their main language at home. A lot of people had relatives in Russia. So not necessarily an anti-Russian place before. But I think the war has changed that. I think, you know, the behavior of the Russian army, the bombardment and so on, has made people in these areas, by all accounts, you know, remember that they're Ukrainians and be grateful to be Ukrainians. So, you know, we shouldn't say that nobody in these areas wants to be part of Russia, but it's surely a strong minority. And this is why we're hearing reports of people, you know, soldiers going house to house, handing people ballot papers, you know, basically trying to force some kind of result in a rather grotesque manner out of the local population.

MARTINEZ: And one more thing, Thomas, quickly, considering how maybe Russia or Russian citizens are now kind of rebelling against Vladimir Putin in some way and how the rest of the world won't see his annexation as legitimate, is there any fear of escalation to the point where nuclear weapons would be involved? Is that something we legitimately need to worry about?

DE WAAL: I think we definitely have to worry about escalation. I couldn't comment on the nuclear issue. That's obviously incredibly dangerous. But something we could watch out for is the Russians attacking Ukrainian critical infrastructure, you know, trying to deprive whole towns and cities of water and electricity and causing a new refugee flow in the winter. That would be very dangerous indeed.

MARTINEZ: Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thomas, thanks.

DE WAAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.