With minimal preparation, armed soldiers standing guard and the sounds of war visible from afar, in various regions of Ukraine under Russian occupation, the so-called
Residents of the Russian-controlled regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia are voting these days to declare independence and join Russia. The vote was widely condemned in Kyiv and the West as illegitimate and seen as an attempt to cover up illegal annexation by Moscow. They were hastily arranged after the announcement earlier this week and are scheduled to last until Tuesday.
President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia plans to return the territories after the formalities of the vote are completed, and has threatened that Moscow is ready to defend its gains using all available means, including the use of nuclear weapons.
Authorities in Kyiv said the votes would not affect the situation on the ground or the ongoing counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army. “There is no referendum. This is a propaganda exercise that they are calling for a referendum,” Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean anything. It will be a montage, in which there will be Russian television cameras.”
The Guardian spoke to several people in the occupied city of Kherson via secure messaging apps, all of whom indicated a lack of activity on the ground. “I don’t know anyone who is going to come to vote this weekend. I’m against annexation, but why bother voting? Everything is already decided for us. I am sure they will count the votes as they wish. Everything is useless,” says Svitlana, who calls herself an apolitical stay-at-home mother.
“Doing it wrong is better than not doing it at all”
The speed with which the vote was organized seems to have prevented the occupation authorities from launching a campaign to encourage turnout and pressure the people. “I have not seen a single campaign or election poster, and I have no information on where people should vote. There is a rumor that they go door to door, but I don’t know,” says another resident of Kherson, who does not want to reveal his identity.
The same person described an increasingly tense atmosphere in the city in recent weeks, especially after the Ukrainian counteroffensive reached the northeastern Kharkiv region. Other people describe similar feelings. “Contact with people in the city is becoming more and more difficult. House searches and telephone checks are now ongoing. “I’m often afraid to talk about politics with my friends for fear of getting into trouble,” says Olena, who left Kherson two weeks ago.
In an interview with the Russian media, the deputy governor appointed by Moscow in the occupied Kherson region said that there are 198 open polling stations in the region. “Our future is part of one big, united country,” says Kirill Stremusov. A video from Donetsk shows “mobile election commissions” going door to door, loudly wooing voters and asking people to come out and vote. Stremusov falsely claims that the election complies with all international election standards.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the elections, listed several reasons why Referendum should not have legal force: They do not meet international standards, they are against Ukrainian legislation, the territories are not safe, there will be no independent observers, and a large part of the population has fled.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum that was also deemed illegitimate, and since 2014 has controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which it administers as Russian proxies, despite their designation as “people’s republics”.
There have been rumors since the spring that the Kremlin was planning to hold a vote in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow hoped to gain full control of all four regions before ordering a referendum. When Ukraine launched a counteroffensive earlier this month, the plans were put on hold indefinitely.
“A few weeks ago we saw that all the consultants who had come from Russia to organize this referendum had flown home and it looked like they were postponing it,” said an intelligence source from Kiev. “We think they realized by counterattacking that the military situation was not conducive to doing that, but then, after some thought, they decided that doing it wrong was better than doing it.”
Ukraine’s return of territories where the Russians had promised locals they would stay “forever” has had repercussions for other occupied territories and has forced many to reconsider decisions about cooperation, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said she had heard phone calls from people in the occupied territories trying to renege on previous cooperation agreements with the Russians after fearing a successful counterattack. “People tried to get away from participating en masse in the organization of this referendum. I listened to these conversations, and they were thinking how to escape and how to write a statement of resignation.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the occupied territories since the invasion, some to Russia, others to territory controlled by Ukraine or Western Europe.
As the occupation progresses, the Russians increasingly create dissent among those who remain against the crackdown. In the first days, massive pro-Ukrainian rallies were held in Kherson and other occupied cities, but they gradually died down. Door-to-door searches and crackdowns have increased in recent weeks.
“All those who had the opportunity to do so left, and those who had to stay for various reasons are too afraid 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,” said Angela 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 and told her that the occupying forces broke into the house and took her husband away. He was against the Russians, but he was not part of the resistance. They let him go the next day, but since then they have not contacted him. “I hear these stories all the time,” he says.
In Kyiv, Vereshchuk linked the referendums to Russia’s recent decision to mobilize reservists, calling it Putin’s “pathetic attempt” to justify the ongoing invasion of the Russian people. “This explains why the domestic audience suffered so much. “I don’t think the average Russian really understands why his son died in some village of Kherson district,” he said.
There is no doubt that Russia will declare the referendums a resounding success, but what will happen next is more difficult to predict. The Ukrainian authorities say they ignore any Russian claims on their territory. Meanwhile, Western leaders hope that Putin’s threat of a nuclear strike is a desperate bluff.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and now vice-president of the Security Council, said in a live 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.
Source: El Diario