Kremlin proxies stage referendums as Russia aims to seize Ukrainian land

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Kremlin proxy authorities in occupied, war-torn Ukraine on Friday declared that “voting” had begun in staged referendums, and that Moscow’s desired outcome — a claim of public support for the annexation of Ukrainian territory — was assured.

The so-called votes, which are being orchestrated in parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of eastern and southeastern Ukraine controlled by the Russian military, are illegal under Ukrainian and international law and, in any case, would not remotely meet basic democratic standards for free and fair elections, not least because of the wartime occupation conditions, and displacement of large numbers of citizens.

Western leaders, including President Biden have denounced the process as a “sham” ahead of Russia’s theft of Ukrainian land.

The Kremlin’s puppet leaders, however, exulted in the process, which they tried to portray as a long path from self-determination to unification with Russia.

“The holding of the referendum is a historic milestone,” Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic said in an video address on Friday morning. “Not only because we are sure of its positive result, but because it is the culmination of our common difficult path. First we became an independent state, then we achieved the recognition of the Republic, and here it is, the third step — unification with Russia.”

“We’re coming home,” Pushilin declared in the speech. “This is the main motive of all our deeds and battles.”

The balloting exercise reprises Moscow’s decades-old Stalinist playbook of staging illegal pseudo votes in neighboring nations, then insisting it followed the law when it invaded and occupied their territory.

But by rushing ahead to stage the current votes, Moscow has broken even its own prior standard, that such votes should be held only after Russia had full military control of the regions, reflecting President Vladimir Putin’s concern that his troops face a real risk of defeat without a major military escalation.

Putin, in a national address broadcast Wednesday, declared his support for the process, and leaders of the Russian parliament have declared their intention to support the precooked outcome by accepting the territories as part of Russia. And former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday said Russian would defend those territories, potentially by using nuclear weapons.

Such declarations pose risks for Moscow, however, because Russia does not fully control any of the four partially occupied regions, militarily or politically, and is facing stiff resistance from local residents and from Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to reclaim all occupied Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014.

For residents, it was not entirely clear how the “voting” procedure would be carried out. The proxy authorities said that much of the voting would be house-to-house or in “public places” but that polling places would also be open both in the occupied areas and in Russia.

In the eastern Ukrainian town of Starobilsk, located in the Luhansk region and under Russian occupation since March, one man said some voting booths had been set up at a government building but people still had not received much information as to when and how the staged referendum would take place.

There were rumors that local police and Russian soldiers might go knocking door to door to collect ballots.

“No self-respecting person will open the door for them,” the man told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

“I was talking to one guy who said he’d stay out of the house for the next week to avoid being forced to vote,” the man said. “I said it might be better to lock yourself in.”

Still, sympathies in the town are divided, as they have been since Russia began fomenting an armed separatist uprising in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014 in response to Ukraine’s pro-European Maidan revolution.

While some residents take part in partisan activities, sneaking out at night to tear down the Russian flags flying around Starobilsk to replace them with Ukrainian ones, others have marked their cars with a “Z” — a symbol for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The man said that attempts to dodge taking part in a referendum he considers bogus could result in neighbors informing on him to the local Moscow-established authorities.

Potentially scarier, the man said, is what may come after the vote. No one doubts that the announced result will be overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia, but once that happens, he said he fears that he and other men in occupied Ukraine could be mobilized to fight on the side of their occupiers and against their own countrymen.

In an information bulletin posted online, authorities of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic said that residents must be 18 years old to participate in the “referendum” and would be asked: “Are you in favor of the LPR joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”

The authorities said that “voting” would take place from Friday until Tuesday, but would be held at local polling stations only on Tuesday. On the other days, they said, “residents will be able to vote for the future of the Republican in places specially organized … in the adjacent territories, public areas and other places suitable for voting equipment.”

They described a process by which residents with acceptable identification documents could essentially request to vote anywhere, even if they are not already listed on voter registration rolls.

But in one sign of the absurd pretense of the exercise, the authorities warned that “repeated voting is prohibited” and anyone caught voting multiple times could face a fine of up to 3,000 rubles (about $50) — acknowledgment that the Russian currency has already been adopted in the separatist territory — or imprisonment of up to three years.

The Kremlin has taken a raft of other steps to coerce the regions into Russia: replacing Ukrainian news with Russian propaganda channels, forcing people to take Russian passports to get social benefits, and imposing Russia’s education curriculum, to teach Ukrainian children the Russian version of their history — that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation but part of the “Russian world.”

Some pro-Russian officials in occupied Ukraine had urged pushing ahead with the staged votes regardless of Russia’s lack of full control over the four regions, noting that the votes would never be accepted by the international community.

Indeed, Western leaders have condemned the process in blunt terms.

“The Kremlin is organizing a sham referenda to try to annex parts of Ukraine, an extremely significant violation of the U.N. Charter,” Biden said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week.

“This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are,” Biden continued, adding: “This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people.”

One ominous element was the plan for house-to-house voting. Facing the possibility of embarrassingly low turnout, local officials charged with organizing the votes were knocking on doors in some places, pressuring people to vote and shattering the traditional privacy of the ballot box.

In a video aired by state propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, officials watched how residents of the Donetsk region marked ballots in the hallway of an apartment block.

Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, a city occupied by Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia, said the occupation authorities would perform a “fake referendum” and that people who would normally work in the southern Ukrainian city’s voting commission are “refusing to work on this en masse.”

Fedorov was allegedly abducted by Russian forces in March before he was freed in what Ukrainian government officials called a “special operation.” Like many legitimately elected officials from occupied areas, he’s governing from outside of Melitopol but is still in contact with many people living there.

The Moscow-established authorities “don’t even plan to go door to door,” canvassing residents, Fedorov said. “For show, they’ll knock on a few doors and take some pictures to show they’re asking people what they think, but in reality, there won’t even be that.”

“Of course people are scared,” Fedorov said. “And people are scared because they understand that this is happening for several reasons, including mobilization.”

Fedorov has advised people to leave the occupied area any way possible. He said that he has been told that men aged 18 to 35 are no longer being allowed to leave through the checkpoints that lead out of occupied territory. So Fedorov has advised his citizens to try to get out via Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula illegally annexed by Russia eight years ago, and to then flee abroad from there.

A similar staged referendum probably would be taking place in the northeastern Kharkiv region if not for a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that led Russian troops to make a humiliating retreat after months of occupation.

In the recently liberated city of Izyum, Kostiantyn Petrov, secretary of the mayor of Izyum, said he found the staged votes baffling.

“It’s hard to understand Putin,” Petrov said. “He thinks this referendum will legitimize occupation of these regions. He wants to show that people want to see Russians there. But such a vote under the threat of rifles cannot be legitimized by any civilized country.”

Petrov said that based on accounts of how Russian forces treated civilians in Izyum, he expected similar tactics could be deployed during the staged referendums in other regions. “If you don’t vote for Russia,” he said, “maybe they will not give you aid.”

“I just feel sorry for them,” said Volodymyr Matsokyn, deputy mayor of Izyum, said of residents living in areas still under Russian control. “It’s a pity that it’s the situation.”

“This referendum is an ordinary version of Putin’s politics,” he said. Putin is trying, he said, to legitimize Russian rule of Ukrainian territory. “But it’s nothing more than occupation.”

Anton Chernyshov, 31, who survived the occupation of Izyum, is now working as a volunteer helping to distribute humanitarian aid to the many people in his city still struggling to find enough to eat.

If Ukrainian forces had not retaken Izyum and a similar vote had taken place there, he said, most of the few people left wouldn’t have cared to vote. The votes taking place in other regions, he said, are not real referendums but little more than “a picture” released by the Russians to give a false veneer of legitimacy to their imposed rule.

In Izyum, power is still out and cellphone network has still not been widely reinstated since the Ukrainians’ retook control, and many residents were unaware of Putin’s plans to stage referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine.

Luba, 59, barged into the courtyard of a building housing temporary city offices on Thursday, complaining about how little aid was reaching residents who had survived the occupation. She held up one bag of pasta, one can of beans and one can of meat, shouting that she was supposed to share such little food between several families.

Luba said had not heard any recent updates on the votes — and had little ability to focus on anything but securing more food. “I don’t know anything,” she said. “There is no electricity.”

Another Izyum resident, Valentyna, 65, said she doubted Ukrainians living under occupation would vote to separate and join Russia. “I believe in our people,” she said. “I believe in Ukraine.”

Still, Valentyna said she knows the battle is far from over in nearby towns still occupied by the Russians. “We’re glad we stayed alive,” she said of those living in Izyum. “But they tell us not to relax too much. No one knows what will happen next.”

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