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 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, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a 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.
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 has full military control, reflecting President Vladimir Putin’s concern that his troops face a real risk of defeat.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday that Russia would move swiftly to absorb the territories. “With a positive decision in the referenda in Donbas, the actions of the parliament and the president of Russia will follow,” Peskov told reporters. “The documents will be signed. Everything will be prompt.” Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region includes the self-proclaimed separatist “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday that 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 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.
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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,” 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 have 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 that local police and Russian soldiers might go knocking door-to-door to collect ballots, pressuring people to vote and shattering the traditional privacy of the ballot box. This ominous practice has been reported elsewhere as local officials face the possibility of an embarrassingly low turnout.
“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 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.
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In a bulletin posted 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 that “voting” would occur from Friday 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 voter registration rolls.
But in one sign of the absurd pretense of the exercise, the authorities warned that “repeated voting is prohibited” and that anyone caught voting multiple times 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 a raft of 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 Ukrainian 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.
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, adding: “This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.”
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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,” 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 in any way possible. He said he has been told that men 18 to 35 years old are no longer being allowed to leave through the checkpoints 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.
A similar staged referendum would have taken place in the northeast Kharkiv region if not for a Ukrainian counteroffensive that forced Russian troops to make a humiliating retreat.
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 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,” 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. “But it’s nothing more than occupation.”
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Anton Chernyshov, 31, who survived the occupation of Izyum, is now working as a volunteer helping to distribute humanitarian aid to the large proportion of residents 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 would not have voted. 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, where power is still out and the cellphone network has still not been widely reinstated since the Ukrainians retook control, many residents were unaware of Putin’s plans to stage referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine.
Luba, a woman of 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 among several families.
Luba said she 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.”
Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and O’Grady from Izyum, Ukraine. Sergii Mukaieliants in Izyum contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.
How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.
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