The “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, which are recognized by Russia, want to have a vote on joining the Russian Federation this week in a controversial procedure. This was announced by the regions on Tuesday.

The mock referendums, which are not recognized by either Ukraine or the international community, are to be held from September 23-27. They are seen as a reaction to the current Ukrainian counter-offensive in the east of the country.

However, it is unclear whether the votes will actually take place. Because parts of Luhansk and Donetsk are already under the control of Ukrainian troops, and they are advancing every day.

But why does Putin want the referendums?

After the accession of the territories, Russia can use “all means of self-defence”, says former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Russian commentators pointed out that this includes nuclear weapons.

The Russian political scientist Tatyana Stanovaja takes a similar view: after the territories have been included, Putin has the option of defending the territories under threat of using nuclear weapons. According to Stanovaya, his decision to hold the referendums came after his original plans to quickly take over the entire region failed.

Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan hailed the referendums as a “Crimea scenario” and argued that by recognizing the areas as Russian territory of NATO and Ukraine, Russia could more easily threaten “retaliatory strikes” for counterattacks.

The Russia expert Ian Garner explains on Twitter that the referenda would put Putin in a defensive position. Because it is to be expected that Ukraine will attack Luhansk and Donetsk after the sham referendums. Then Russia would try to block the attacks, and the Russian war leadership could publicly claim, “You see, we said this was a war of self-defense.”

One point speaks against this argument. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea. Now this was recently attacked by the Ukrainians. However, there was no talk of retaliatory measures against NATO. This is shown by the experts of the US think tank “Institute for the Study of War” (ISW).

The ISW researchers show a different interpretation of the referenda. They stress that the referendums could put Putin in a “humbled” position. Because after a referendum, the Russians would ask the Ukrainian troops to leave the area. However, given the findings of the last few weeks – the surprising strength and progress of the Ukrainian army, as well as the dwindling combat capability and disastrous morale of the Russians – this call should not lead to a Ukrainian withdrawal.

Putin and the Russian military leadership would then have to explain why the areas are now part of Russia – but Ukrainian troops have the upper hand in individual regions. In addition, Putin would thereby admit that he has annexed Luhansk and Donetsk, but left other occupied territories to Ukraine. That would amount to a “significant withdrawal” and an admission that Russia had failed to capture all of Ukraine, the experts said.

The Kremlin could nevertheless rely on being able to use the referenda to mobilize the population domestically – possibly even by declaring a state of defense. However, experts consider this scenario unlikely. Because the war is unpopular among the population and most of them want to keep it out of everyday life.

Before the referendums were announced, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had called for accession referendums in the Moscow-held areas of Ukraine to be irrevocably annexed to Russia. “After their implementation and the inclusion of the new territories in the structure of Russia, the geopolitical transformation in the world will take on an irreversible character,” he wrote on Tuesday on his Telegram channel.

In view of the recent Ukrainian advance, the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk had called for such “coordination” to be held quickly. Russia justified its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 with the “liberation” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, among other things.

First, the Russian military was able to conquer large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. Most recently, however, the Kremlin had to accept a sensitive defeat. After Ukrainian attacks, Russian troops almost completely withdrew from the Kharkiv region. State propaganda warned of a possible devastating defeat in the war.