They have handed out Russian passports, cellphone numbers and set-top boxes for watching Russian television. They have replaced Ukrainian currency with the ruble, rerouted the internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds who have resisted assimilation.
In ways big and small, the occupying authorities on territory seized by Moscow’s forces are using fear and indoctrination to compel Ukrainians to adopt a Russian way of life. “We are one people,” blue-white-and-red billboards say. “We are with Russia.”
Now comes the next act in President Vladimir V. Putin’s 21st-century version of a war of conquest: the grass-roots “referendum.”
Russia-appointed administrators in towns, villages and cities like Kherson in Ukraine’s south are setting the stage for a vote as early as September that the Kremlin will present as a popular desire in the region to become part of Russia. They are recruiting pro-Russia locals for new “election commissions” and promoting to Ukrainian civilians the putative benefits of joining their country; they are even reportedly printing the ballots already.
Any referendum would be totally illegitimate, Ukrainian and Western officials say, but it would carry ominous consequences. Analysts both in Moscow and Ukraine expect that it would serve as a prelude to Mr. Putin’s officially declaring the conquered area to be Russian territory, protected by Russian nuclear weapons — making future attempts by Kyiv to drive out Russian forces potentially much more costly.
Annexation would also represent Europe’s biggest territorial expansion by force since World War II, affecting an area several times larger than Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Mr. Putin took over in 2014. [Continue reading…]