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Moscow prepares to annex 4 Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Billboards in Moscow's Red Square declare that four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine are now part of Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to announce the annexation of those provinces following so-called referendums, widely denounced as shams, that suggested overwhelming support for becoming part of the Russian Federation. It's reminiscent of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But could 2022 be different? Simon Ostrovsky is a PBS NewsHour correspondent who has covered Russia, Ukraine and the region for years. And he joins us now. Hi, Simon.

SIMON OSTROVSKY: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. OK. So now that these so-called referendums are done and the outcomes show support for Russian annexation - of course, not a surprise after all these reports of coerced voting - what does that mean for Ukrainians in these four provinces?

OSTROVSKY: Well, I think that, you know, what people don't realize is that the changes that are taking place in these regions started as soon as the Russian authorities came in.

FADEL: OK.

OSTROVSKY: It's not like these referendums and annexation happen and then, overnight, it's Russia and the Russian flags go up.

FADEL: Right.

OSTROVSKY: The Russian flags have been there for months. The Russian ruble has been in circulation. Schools have been forced to use the Russian language. Russian laws have been imposed. And any sort of manifestation of Ukrainian identity has already been wiped away from the areas where these referenda - these so-called referenda were organized. But the crazy thing is that Russia doesn't even control the entirety of the regions in which it hosted these fake referenda. It's got - it's in an act of war on the borders of each of these regions.

FADEL: Right. Now, you were in Crimea when a similar staged referendum was held there. How was that different than what you saw here in these four Ukrainian provinces? You've already pointed out there's active war all around these areas.

OSTROVSKY: Well, the main difference is that Russia pretended like it wasn't involved in the Crimea referendum. But it was very similar in the sense that it was hastily organized. People didn't have a lot of time to think about what they were voting for. There were no international observers who could guarantee the legitimacy of the process. And around the same time, the Scottish independence referendum was happening in the U.K. People over there had over a year to ponder what the consequences of, you know, changing sovereignty in their region would mean and what that would look like.

FADEL: Yeah.

OSTROVSKY: People had literal weeks in Crimea. And the other thing that you've got to remember is that when Russia comes into power in a region, that means that people who don't support it live in fear. They leave.

FADEL: Right.

OSTROVSKY: So you have a self-selecting sort of group of people voting in these things in the first place because everybody who feared Russia escaped when the fighting first started in Crimea, when the sort of little green men took over that Russia was pretending weren't their soldiers.

FADEL: Now, with so little access to people inside these provinces because of Russia's occupation, do we actually know what people want in these territories?

OSTROVSKY: Well, I don't think we'll ever find out, you know, what the true level of support for joining Russia was in these regions. And I don't - you know, nobody would claim that there's no support for that. But this isn't the way that you find that out.

FADEL: Right.

OSTROVSKY: You don't do a poll on the territory of somebody else's country and then, you know, force the result down their throat...

FADEL: Right.

OSTROVSKY: ...And tell them, well, that's that. That's life. Russia would never allow another country to go to one of its ethnic regions, of which there are many, and organize a poll there for independence of these non-Russian ethnic regions that are in the Russian Federation. I don't see why it should happen in Ukraine and how that can be a justification for further hostilities, which seems to be the real purpose of organizing this because we in the West obviously know that these are fake, but for the Russian public, this is something that Putin can hold up and say this is his excuse for the violence that's being perpetrated in Ukraine and has been perpetrated.

FADEL: So in the 30 seconds we have left, I mean, Ukraine and its allies, of course, have condemned this, what is seen as a sham of a vote. And that happened in 2014 in Crimea. But Crimea remains annexed. So is this international outrage of today any more powerful than what we saw then?

OSTROVSKY: The world is arming Ukraine. And Ukraine is winning on the battlefield. And Russia can only control those places where it has soldiers. And I think that's the main difference between what happened in 2014 and what's happening now. Ukraine has a chance of winning this war.

FADEL: Simon Ostrovsky is a special correspondent with PBS NewsHour. Thanks so much for your time.

OSTROVSKY: Good speaking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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