Pro-Russia ‘Victory’ in Staged Ukraine Referendums Clears Path to Annexation

Moscow-appointed election officials in occupied Ukraine on Wednesday expressed overwhelming support for unification with Russia in a series of hasty referendums dismissed as fraud by Kyiv and Western countries.

The voting took place in four Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of the country and Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south – and are expected to dramatically raise the stakes in the Ukraine-Russia war.

“Firstly, it will be possible to send Russian conscripts to the regions. Second, Moscow will again issue nuclear threats,” said political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky.

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“Russia will probably set up a buffer zone there, and these areas will become a negotiating tool,” he told the Moscow Times.

The votes, which took place over five days amid ongoing fighting, are likely to be used by the Kremlin to annex large parts of eastern Ukraine and portray the war – and Kiev’s recent successful counteroffensive – as an existential threat to Russia.

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The self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic has voted 98.2% to join Russia was the Donetsk People’s Republic 99.23% for this was the Kherson region 87.05% in favor and in the Zaporizhia region 93.1% vote to become part of Russia, according to results announced early Wednesday.

Independent international observers were not present at the polling stations, and the referendum results were flatly dismissed as falsified by Ukraine and its Western allies.

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“A large number of people voted at home,” the head of Russia’s Zaporizhia region administration, Yevgeny Balitsky, said Tuesday in an interview with Russia’s state broadcaster Rossiya 24. In many cases, election officials accompanied by armed soldiers carried ballot boxes from door to door.

The exiled Ukrainian mayor of Russian-controlled Melitopol in the Zaporizhia region accused pro-Russian authorities of forcing people to vote.

Voting in the Embassy of the DNR in Moscow.  Alexander Avilov / Moskva News Agency

Voting in the Embassy of the DNR in Moscow.
Alexander Avilov / Moskva News Agency

“Voting takes place in front of assault rifles and armed men… People are grabbed right on the street and forced to vote not only for themselves but for their whole family,” Ivan Fedorov said said Reuters earlier this week.

“People just couldn’t vote against the annexation — imagine voting in front of the occupation authorities,” Ukrainian journalist Nick Osychenko told the Moscow Times.

“Many Ukrainians have left the area. Others have been living there in utter lawlessness for months. Anyone who has a gun is right. For some reason, they believe that Russia can bring them peace and prosperity,” said Osychenko, who lived in the port city of Mariupol before it was captured by Russian forces in the first months of the invasion.

“It’s Stockholm syndrome,” Osychenko added.

Those with pro-Russian views in the occupied territories received extensive coverage from Russia’s state media, which hailed the controversial vote’s outcome as a milestone.

“We are all waiting for peace. With our older brother, it will be easier for us,” said a woman at a polling station in Donetsk in non-aired footage shared with The Moscow Times.

“We’ve been on our own for eight years. Of course Russia helped us, but from now on we will all be together,” said a man who voted in Donetsk, referring to the 2014 seizure of power by Russian-backed separatists that sparked a war with Kiev’s forces there.

The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti described the atmosphere in the city of Melitopol as “a real celebration”.

Voting in the Embassy of the DNR in Moscow.  Alexander Avilov / Moskva News Agency

Voting in the Embassy of the DNR in Moscow.
Alexander Avilov / Moskva News Agency

With a pre-war population of 8.8 million people, the occupied territories are largely controlled by Russian forces. Thousands have fled war-torn areas since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, and experts warned there is no official data on the number of people who stayed.

Moscow too organized Polling stations inside Russia, ostensibly to allow hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees to vote.

“We’re talking about a copycat organized by the occupied administrations,” said Konstantin Skorkin, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who focuses on eastern Ukraine politics.

“Even if there is a certain percentage of pro-Russian people in the occupied territories of Ukraine, it is impossible to call this ‘an expression of will,'” Skorkin told the Moscow Times.

Before the end of voting, the head of the Moscow-backed administration of the Kherson region Vladimir Saldo said Tuesday that “the vast majority of those who came to the polling station supported the exit of the Kherson region from Ukraine and joining Russia.”

The four regions also asked differently Questions of voters on their ballot papers.

In Donetsk and Luhansk were the voters asked whether they “support the accession of their republic to Russia as a federative subject”. Occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia, meanwhile, asked if people “support the region’s secession from Ukraine, the creation of an independent country, and then joining Russia as a federal subject.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Kyiv could no longer negotiate peace with Russia after the referendums.

“Russia’s recognition of the pseudo-referendums as ‘normal’, the implementation of the so-called Crimea scenario and another attempt to annex Ukrainian territory means that there is nothing to discuss with (the) current Russian president,” he said in one Video message to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

If the Kremlin goes ahead with the annexation, Russia will claim sovereignty over about 20% of Ukraine, including Crimea captured in 2014.

The Russian parliament must then approve a treaty that formally incorporates the four regions into Russian territory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address both houses of Russia’s parliament on Friday, where many expect him to formally declare that Ukraine’s four occupied regions have become part of Russia.

AFP contribution to reporting.