With minimal preparation, armed soldiers standing guard and the rumblings of war perceptible in the distance, various areas of Ukraine under Russian occupation have begun so-called referendums on Friday.
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Residents of the Russian-held regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia are voting these days to declare independence and join Russia. The vote has been widely condemned in kyiv and in the West as illegitimate and appears to be an attempt to cover up illegal annexation by Moscow. They have been hastily arranged after being announced earlier this week and are scheduled to last until Tuesday.
President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia plans to reclaim the territories once the voting formalities are over and has threatened that Moscow is willing to defend its gains using all available means, including nuclear weapons.
In kyiv, the authorities have said that the votes will have no effect on the situation on the ground or on the current counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army. “There is no referendum. This is a propaganda exercise that they are calling a referendum,” Mikhailo Podoliak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in an interview. “It does not mean anything. It will be a montage in which there will be Russian television cameras.”
The Guardian has spoken to several people in the occupied city of Kherson via secure messaging apps, all of whom have pointed to a lack of activity on the ground. “I don’t know anyone who plans to go this weekend to vote. I’m against annexation, but why bother voting? Everything is already decided for us. I’m sure they’ll count the votes as they please. Everything is useless,” says Svitlana, who describes herself as an apolitical stay-at-home mother.
“Doing it wrong is better than not doing it”
The speed with which the vote has been organized appears to have prevented the occupation authorities from launching a campaign to encourage turnout and pressure people to vote. “I have not seen any campaign or election posters and I have no information on where people should vote. There is a rumor that they will go door to door, but I don’t know,” says another Kherson resident who does not want to reveal his identity.
The same person describes an increasingly tense atmosphere in recent weeks in the city, especially since the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the northeastern Kharkov region. Other people describe similar feelings. “It is getting harder and harder to get in touch with people in the city. Now there are constant house searches and telephone checks. I am often afraid to talk about politics with my friends for fear of getting them into trouble,” says Olena, who left Kherson two weeks ago.
In interviews with Russian media, the Moscow-appointed deputy governor for the occupied Kherson region has claimed that there are 198 open polling stations in the region. “Our future is part of one big, united country,” says Kirill Stremousov. A video from Donetsk purportedly shows “mobile election commissions” going house to house attracting the electorate with loudspeakers and asking people to go out and vote. Stremousov has falsely claimed that the vote complies with all international electoral standards.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, has listed a number of reasons why referendums should not have legal force: They do not meet international standards, they are contrary to Ukrainian law, the areas are not safe, there will be no independent monitors and a large part of the population has fled.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum that was also described as illegitimate and has controlled part of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014, which it runs as Russian agents despite their designation as “people’s republics”.
There have been rumors since spring that the Kremlin planned to hold votes in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow hoped to gain full control of all four regions before ordering the referendum. When Ukraine began its counter-offensive at the beginning of the month, the plans were postponed indefinitely.
“A couple of weeks ago we saw that all the consultants who came from Russia to organize this referendum flew home and it seemed that they were postponing it,” says an intelligence source from kyiv. “We think they realized with the counteroffensive that the military situation was not conducive to doing it, but then, after some thought, they decided that doing it wrong is better than not doing it.”
Ukraine’s recapture of territories where the Russians had promised locals they would stay “forever” has had consequences in other occupied areas and prompted many to recalibrate their decisions to collaborate, Ukrainian officials say.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has said she has heard intercepted phone calls from occupied areas from people trying to ditch previous cooperation agreements with the Russians after being spooked by the success of the counter-offensive. “People were trying to get rid of participating in the organization of this referendum in a massive way. I have listened to these conversations and they were thinking about how to run away and how to write a resignation letter.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have left the occupied areas since the invasion, some to Russia and some to Ukrainian-controlled territory or Western Europe.
As the occupation has advanced, the Russians have increasingly cracked down on dissent among those who have remained. In the first days there were massive pro-Ukrainian rallies in Kherson and other occupied cities, but they were gradually quelled. Door-to-door searches and repression have increased in recent weeks.
“The repression has intensified”
“All those who have had the opportunity to do so have left and those who have had to stay for different reasons are too scared to protest. It is unlikely that we will see protests like the ones I attended at the beginning of the war. It’s just not safe. The crackdown has intensified,” says Anzhela Hladka, an advertising executive from Kherson who left the city in April and is now in the Netherlands.
“Last week, a friend’s wife called to say that the occupation forces broke into her house and took her husband away. She was against the Russians, but she was not part of the resistance. She let him go the next day, but she hasn’t contacted him since. I hear these stories all the time,” she says.
In kyiv, Vereshchuk links the referendums to Russia’s recent decision to mobilize reservists, calling it a “pathetic attempt” by Putin to justify the ongoing invasion to the Russian people. “It is to explain to an internal audience why there have been so many losses. I don’t think the average Russian really understands why his son has died in some village in the Kherson region,” he said.
There is no doubt that Russia will proclaim the referendums an overwhelming success, but what happens next is harder to predict. Ukrainian authorities say they will ignore any Russian claim to their territory. Meanwhile, Western leaders hope Putin’s threats of nuclear strikes are a desperate bluff.
Dmitri Medvedev, former Russian president and now vice president of the Security Council, has said directly on Telegram that nuclear weapons could be used if the newly annexed territories were threatened. “That is why these referendums are so feared in kyiv and in the West.”