KHARKIV, Ukraine – Kremlin proxy authorities in occupied, war-torn Ukraine declared Friday that voting has begun in staged referendums and that Moscow’s desired outcome – a claim of public support for the annexation of Ukrainian territory – is assured.
The purported referendums, which are being orchestrated in parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of eastern and southeastern Ukraine that are controlled by the Russian military, are illegal under Ukrainian and international law and, in any case, would not meet basic democratic standards for free and fair elections.
Western leaders, including President Biden, have denounced the process as a “sham” to prepare the ground for Russia’s theft of Ukrainian land.
The Kremlin’s proxy 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, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video address 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.
The balloting exercise reprises Moscow’s decadesold 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 now, Moscow has broken even its own prior standard that such votes should be held only after Russia has full military control, reflecting President Vladimir Putin’s concern that his troops face a real risk of defeat.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday that Russia would move swiftly to absorb the territories.
“The actions of the parliament and the president of Russia will follow,” Peskov told reporters. “The documents will be signed. Everything will be prompt.”
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday the outcome of the votes was a foregone conclusion and that Russia would defend the newly acquired territories, potentially by using nuclear weapons.
Such declarations pose risks for Moscow, however, because Russia does not fully control the four partially occupied regions, militarily or politically, and faces stiff resistance from local residents and from Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pledged to reclaim all occupied territory, including Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014.
For residents, it was not entirely clear how the “voting” would be carried out. The authorities said much of the voting would be house to house or in “public places,” in the occupied areas and in Russia.
In the town of Starobilsk, located in the Luhansk region and occupied since March, one man said some voting booths had been set up at a government building but that people have not received much information as to when and how the staged referendum would take place.
There were rumors local police and Russian soldiers might go door-to-door to collect ballots, pressuring people to vote and shattering the traditional privacy of the ballot box.
“No self-respecting person will open the door for them,” the man in Starobilsk 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 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 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 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 in favor of joining Russia, but after that, he said he fears he and other men in occupied Ukraine could be mobilized to fight for Russia and against their own countrymen.
In a bulletin online, authorities of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic said 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 voting would occur until Tuesday but would be held at local polling stations only on Tuesday. On the other days, they said in a statement, “residents will be able to vote for the future of the Republic 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 listed on registration rolls.
In one sign of the pretense of the exercise, the authorities warned “repeated voting is prohibited” and that anyone caught could be fined up to 3,000 rubles (about $50) – acknowledgment that the Russian currency has already been adopted in the territory – or imprisoned for up to three years.
The Kremlin has taken other steps to coerce the regions into joining 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 children 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 control over the regions, noting that the votes would never be accepted by the international community.
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, adding: “This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”
In a video aired by Russian state propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, officials watched how residents of the Donetsk region marked ballots in the hallway of an apartment block.
Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, a city under Russian control 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 were “refusing to work on this en masse.”
Fedorov was allegedly abducted by Russian forces in March before he was freed in what Ukrainian officials called a “special operation.” Like many legitimately elected officials from occupied areas, he is governing from outside 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, 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 he has been told men 18 to 35 years old are no longer being allowed through the checkpoints out. He has advised his citizens to try to get out via Crimea, and then flee abroad.
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