Kremlin holds proxy referendums as Russia aims to grab Ukrainian land


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

The so-called referendums, which are orchestrated in parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine which are controlled by the Russian military, are illegal under Ukrainian law and international and, in any event, would not remotely meet basic democratic standards for free and fair elections.

Western leaders, including President Biden, have denounced the process as a “sham” to set the stage for Russia to steal Ukrainian land.

Kremlin proxy leaders, however, gloated in the process.

“Holding the referendum is a historic step,” Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video address Friday morning. “First we became an independent state, then we got recognition of the republic, and here it is, the third stage – unification with Russia.”

“We’re going home,” he declared triumphantly.

The ballot exercise picks up on Moscow’s decades-old Stalinist playbook of staging illegal pseudo-votes in neighboring countries, then insisting it followed the law when it invaded and occupied their territory.

Residents of Mariupol began voting in a Kremlin-orchestrated referendum on joining Russia on September 23. (Video: The Washington Post)

But in its haste to lay the groundwork for annexation, Moscow even broke its own earlier norm that such votes should only take place after Russia had full military control, reflecting President Vladimir Putin’s fear that his troops face a real risk of defeat.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that Russia would move quickly to absorb the territories. “The actions of the Russian parliament and president will follow,” Peskov told reporters. “The documents will be signed. Everything will be fast.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday that the outcome of the votes was a foregone conclusion and that Russia would defend the newly acquired territories, potentially using nuclear weapons.

Such statements pose risks for Moscow, which is already facing stiff resistance from local residents in the partially occupied regions, and from Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to recover all occupied territory, including Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.

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For residents, it was not entirely clear how the “vote” would unfold.

In the town of Starobilsk, located in the Lugansk region and occupied since March, a man said voting booths had been set up in a government building but people had been given little information on how the organized referendum would take place .

In other occupied areas, videos emerged election officials knocking on doors to entice people to vote, accompanied by Russian soldiers.

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

“I was talking to a guy who said he’ll be staying out of the house next week to avoid being forced to vote,” the man said. “I said it might be best to lock up.”

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

While some locals turned partisans, sneaking out at night to tear down Russian flags and replace them with Ukrainian flags, others branded their cars with a “Z,” a symbol of the Russian invasion.

The man said attempts to dodge participation in a referendum he considers bogus could lead neighbors to report him to local authorities put in place by Moscow.

Potentially scarier, the man said, is what could happen after the vote. No one doubts that the announced result will be in favor of joining Russia, but after that he fears that he and other men in occupied Ukraine will be mobilized to fight for Russia and against their own compatriots.

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Authorities said “voting” would take place from Friday to Tuesday but would only be held at local polling stations on Tuesday. On other days, they specify in a press release, “the inhabitants will be able to vote for the future of the Republic in specially equipped places… in the adjacent territories, public places and other places adapted to voting equipment”.

They outlined a process by which residents 18 and older with acceptable IDs could essentially apply to vote anywhere, even if they weren’t on the registration lists.

But in a sign of the exercise’s absurd pretentiousness, authorities warned that “repeated voting is prohibited” and anyone caught could be fined up to 3,000 rubles (about $50) – recognition that Russian currency has already been adopted in the territory — or imprisoned for up to three years.

The Kremlin has taken a series of other measures to coerce regions into joining Russia: replacing Ukrainian news with Russian propaganda channels, forcing people to acquire Russian passports for social benefits, and imposing the Russian education to teach Ukrainian children that their country is not a sovereign nation but part of the “Russian world”.

Some pro-Russian officials in occupied Ukraine had urged a continuation of the staged votes regardless of Russia’s lack of control over the regions, noting that the results would never be accepted by the international community and, indeed, world leaders have condemned the process in no uncertain terms.

In a statement on Friday, the leaders of the Group of Seven condemned “the sham referendums that Russia is trying to use to create a false pretext to change the status of the sovereign territory of Ukraine, which is the object of Russian aggression in Classes. These actions clearly violate the Charter of the United Nations and international law and go diametrically against the rule of law among nations,” the statement said.

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In one broadcast video by Russian state propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, officials watched residents of the Donetsk region mark ballots in the hallway of an apartment building.

Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, a Russian-held city in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, said the occupation authorities would hold a “fake referendum” and that people who would normally work in the city’s polling commission “Refused to work on this en masse.

Fedorov was reportedly kidnapped by Russian forces in March before being released in what Ukrainian officials have called a “special operation”. Like many democratic elected officials from the occupied areas, he governs from outside Melitopol but is still in contact with many people who live there.

Moscow-backed puppet authorities “don’t even plan to go door-to-door” soliciting residents, Fedorov said. “For the show, they’ll be knocking on a few doors and taking pictures to show that they’re asking people what they think, but in reality there won’t even be that.”

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

Fedorov advised people to leave the occupied zone by all means. He was told that men between the ages of 18 and 35 are no longer allowed through checkpoints, so he suggested citizens try to exit via Crimea and then flee abroad.

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A similar referendum would have taken place in the northeastern region of Kharkiv had it not been for the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive which forced Russian troops to retreat.

In the recently liberated city of Izyum, the mayor’s secretary, Kostiantyn Petrov, said he found the organized votes disconcerting. “It’s hard to understand Putin,” Petrov said. “He thinks that this referendum will legitimize the occupation of these regions. He wants to show that people want to see Russians there. But such a vote at gunpoint cannot be legitimized by any civilized country.

Based on accounts of how Russian forces treated civilians in Izyum, Petrov said he expected similar tactics in referendums held in other regions. “If you don’t vote for Russia,” he said, “maybe they won’t give you help.”

Anton Chernyshov, 31, who survived the occupation of Izyum, now works as a volunteer distributing humanitarian aid to the large proportion of residents still struggling to find food. If a referendum had been held in Izyum, he said, most of the few remaining people would not have voted.

With the power still out and the mobile phone network still unreliable, many residents were unaware of Putin’s plans to hold referendums.

Luba, a 59-year-old woman, burst into the courtyard of a building housing the city’s temporary offices on Thursday, complaining that little help was reaching residents. She held up a bag of pasta, a can of beans and a can of meat, shouting that she was supposed to split the meager provisions among several families.

Luba said she hadn’t heard any recent updates on the votes – she was just focused on getting more food. “I don’t know anything,” she said. “There is no electricity.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and O’Grady from Izyum, Ukraine. Sergii Mukaieliants at Izyum contributed to this report.

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