A possible referendum to end the Ukraine crisis?

By Chris Hamer

We discuss a possible basis for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine. It involves a UN-supervised referendum of the inhabitants in each of the disputed territories.

The Present Situation

The war in Ukraine has now reached something of a stalemate, with no prospect of an early end in sight. Russia mounted its invasion on 24 February 2022 with the aim of overthrowing the government of Ukraine. They expected to meet little resistance, but Ukraine inflicted a bloody repulse to the invading Russian forces. Vladimir Putin then lowered his sights to the annexation of the eastern territories of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson, which were proclaimed as Russian territories in late September. Since then, fierce fighting has seen Russian forces pushed out of Kherson city and back to the eastern side of the Dnieperriver. For now the battlefront has been reduced to trench warfare, with both sides reportedly running low on ammunition.

According to reports, Russia is desperate to end the war in Ukraine without losing face. They have switched tactics again to raining missiles on the infrastructure of Ukraine, destroying their power and water facilities and hoping cold and hunger will force the Ukrainian people to sue for peace. On the other side, President Zelensky has stated that Ukraine is determined to regain all its territories, including Crimea. Neither side is willing to negotiate, except on its own terms.

The damage has been horrific. Casualties and deaths have numbered in the tens or even hundreds of thousands on both sides, and it is estimated to cost of order $1 trillion to repair the damage to buildings and the economy, with no end in sight.

Is a diplomatic solution feasible?

A possible solution would be a ceasefire, followed by a proper, UN-supervised referendum in each of the disputed territories to see whether the majority of the inhabitants would prefer to be citizens of Russia, or Ukraine. Both sides would have to agree to withdraw their forces, and leave the referendum to be supervised by UN peacekeeping forces, which could perhaps be supplied by, say, Brazil and India, two nonaligned members of the BRICS group. The voter rolls would have to include all the citizens of each territory recorded before the Russian invasion. The boundaries of the territories involved would be a matter for negotiation.

This would lead to a solution according to the will of the people themselves, which ought to be acceptable to both sides. Russia has asserted that the inhabitants would prefer to live as citizens of Russia, and to admit otherwise would destroy their whole justification for the war. And Ukraine has been loudly supporting the principle of democracy, which would be severely compromised if they took back the disputed territories against the will of the inhabitants.


There are certainly enormous practical difficulties in achieving such a solution. Both sides would be reluctant to agree to it, because it would mean drawing back to some degree from their proclaimed objectives. It would require the good offices of mediators, perhaps President Erdogan from Turkey, to bring them to the negotiating table. And even if agreement was reached, Russia and possibly Ukraine could be expected to try and distort the results of the referendum in their favour, which would require large contingents of peacekeepers and election supervisors to prevent.

Many people in the US and the EU would oppose any such solution, on the grounds that it might reward Russian aggression. Punishment for that would have to be left to a later stage, either by action in the International Criminal Court, or even the Russian people themselves. There have been reports that President Putin is suffering from terminal cancer, or preparing a bolthole in Venezuela. These scenarios/rumors are best ignored for the moment. The major objective must be to call a halt to the enormous suffering of the Ukrainian people, and prevent even worse disasters such as the outbreak of nuclear war. The veteran statesman Henry Kissinger has called for negotiations to avert any possibility of a new world war, for instance, and no less a figure than General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also called for negotiations to end the conflict. “The probability of Russia achieving its strategic objectives of conquering Ukraine…is close to zero,” he said. But on the other hand, “the probability of a Ukrainian military victory, defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine, to include what they claim is Crimea…is not high, militarily,” he added. He urged Kyiv and Moscow to find a “political solution” as the winter months loom, warning that the chances of a total military victory was “unlikely.”

Possible Outcomes

What would be the outcome of such a referendum? According to previous reports, a majority of citizens in Crimea and eastern Donetsk and Luhanskhave an ethnic bond and religious affinity with Russia, and may well opt for union with it. If so, why not allow them to do so? On the other hand, the citizens of all the disputed territories might opt to be reunited with Ukraine, which would achieve their war aims without any further fighting. Either way, this could be a way of halting the enormous death and destruction presently occurring in the conflict. And it would still provide a powerful reinforcement of the principle of democracy that the West has been fighting for so earnestly. It surely would be worth exploring the possibility, at least.

Chris Hamer is President of the World Citizens Association of Australia, and also President of a transnational working group, the Coalition for a World Security Community of democratic nations. He is a member of AIIA NSW.