It is best to regard what is happening as a media event. There is not only no le-gal basis for speaking of a "referendum," but not even much factual basis for speaking of a "sham referendum." A sham is shambolic, but it does actually exist. What Russia is undertaking is nothing more than a media exercise designed to shape how people think about Russian-occupied Ukraine.
It would be illegal to hold referendums during an armed conflict and under the threat of the use of force. And this is reason enough to ignore the media exercise completely. But it is just the surface of the problem. If held, referendums would indeed be illegal. But we should be careful: even when we say "illegal referendum" we are not quite getting to bottom of things. We might convince ourselves that some voting happened with some flaws.
It takes infrastructure to hold an election. That infrastructure is not there. Al-though we will no doubt see photographs of old ladies holding pieces of paper, it would be wrong for reporters to speak of a "vote." What is more: even if the Russians actually had voting infrastructure, which they don't; and even if they intended to have people in the occupied territories vote, which they don't; they couldn't do so, since they do not actually control the totality of any of the regions where they will claim that voting is taking place.
No meaningful voting could be going on, or is going on. The actual situation has nothing to do with Ukrainians or how they might vote. It has to do with Putin's felt needs. Russia is losing the war, and Putin needs a new wall of illusion. Like tyrants everywhere and all times, he has made a fatal mistake, and so his last act will be to make sure that it is fatal for his own people. Putin needs to send Russian reserves to Ukraine and he needs a story about why he is doing so, other than that his war was an error and Russia is losing. The story is that Russia's offensive war to destroy Ukraine is actually a defensive war to defend the motherland. For this story he needs the media exercise.
Putin knows that most Russians do not really care about Ukraine, except in the sense of enjoying a war on television. But the war is going so badly that the television version is getting hard to sustain. Putin needs some Russians to get up from the couch and fight, and has announcd a "partial mobilization." To convince Russian men to fight, and families not to rebel, he has altered his characterization of the war. It was once a "special military operation" that was to destroy Ukraine in three days. Now it is a grand struggle to defend civilization, etc. But a defensive war must be fought on Russian territory.
Ergo, Putin must present Ukrainian territory that the Ukrainians are taking back as Russian territory; and ergo, he must have a media exercise to pretend that "referendums" have taken place, and that people in Ukrainian regions want to join Russia. Presto-chango-russo: a tyrant's wish, a few lines of script on Russian television, a few lines of code on Russian media websites, and territories become Russian! This quavering postmodern improvisation will convince no one beyond Russia, and it might not even convince Russians. But now that Putin has decided, the media exercise to support his magical thinking must go forward.
At a certain moment, Russian media will just declare that (something like) 97% of the people of Donetsk region want to join Russia, 96% in Luhansk, 86% in Zaporizhia, 80% in Kherson. These numbers will be invented, made up. They are already in a file somewhere. There will be no more reason to report those numbers in a sentence with the word "referendum" or "vote" in it than there would be to report my claim, made here, that 97% of the inhabitants of Brooklyn wish to join Mississippi.
It is beside the point to say that such numbers are implausible, because they will just be invented. When we already know that something is made up, we don't usually stop to think whether we might have believed it anyway. But yes, the fictions provided in the media exercise will be implausible. And deliberately so. The way Russian electoral propaganda works is to tell a lie that everyone knows is a lie, and then to show by force that there is no alternative to living as though the lie were true. So we will get North Korean numbers, be-cause that is how the system works.
So this Russian media exercise is ludicrous. But it is not funny. It is obscene.
What about the dead? What about the more than 100,000 Ukrainian the Russians killed in Mariupol? How should we think about their "votes"? What about the more than three million Ukrainian citizens whom Russia has forcibly deported, many of whom are now in camps? In the regions where the media exercise will be applied, Russia has destroyed city after city. Everywhere Russia occupied territory, it leaves behind mass graves. When I was in Ukraine a couple of weeks ago, I visited one of them, as well as the homes of people who had lost family members. While I was in Ukraine, the Ukrainian army liberated much of Kharkiv region, and now we know of more mass graves, for example in Izyum.
That is the world in which the media exercise is undertaken. When Russia claims that huge majorities of Ukrainians want to join Russia, they are claiming that Ukrainians like death pits, that Ukrainians like torture, that Ukrainians like deportation, that Ukrainians like to have their homes destroyed and their cities obliterated.
The ongoing Russian media exercise ("referendums") is an obscenity. When Russian media announces the invented "results," Moscow will be claiming that Ukrainians wish to celebrate their own ongoing genocide by joining the country that is perpetrating it. Such an attempt at public humiliation is despicable. The Russian media exercise is nothing more and nothing less than an element of ongoing Russian war crimes.