Western leaders, including President Biden, have denounced the process as a “spoof” in preparation for Russia’s theft of land from Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s proxies, however, were delighted in the process.
“The holding of the referendum is a historic milestone,” Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video address on Friday morning. “First we became an independent country, then we achieved the recognition of the republic, and this is the third step – unification with Russia.”
“We’re going home,” he said triumphantly.
The voting exercise opposes Moscow’s decades-old Stalinist play of staging illegal fake votes in neighboring countries, then insists it obeys the law when it comes to invasion and occupation. close their territory.
But in the rush to lay the groundwork for the merger, Moscow broke its own earlier standard that such votes were held only after Russia had full military control, reflecting the relationship between Russia and Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s fears that his troops face real danger of defeat.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia would quickly take over the territories. “The actions of the Russian parliament and the president will follow,” Peskov told reporters. “The documents will be signed. Everything will be quick. “
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday that the results of the votes were a foregone conclusion and that Russia would defend the newly won territories, potentially by using nuclear weapons. core.
Such claims pose a risk to Moscow, which has been met with stiff resistance from local residents in the partially occupied areas, and from Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to take back all of the occupied territory, including Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.
For residents, it’s not entirely clear how the “voting” will be done.
In the town of Starobilsk, which is in the Luhansk region and has been occupied since March, a man said several polling booths had been set up at a government building but residents received little information on how to organize them. hold a referendum.
In other occupied areas, video emerged of election officials knocking door-to-door to pressure people to vote, accompanied by Russian soldiers.
The Starobilsk man told The Washington Post, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation: “No one with self-respect will open the door for them.
“I spoke to a man who said he would be out of the house for the next week to avoid being forced to vote,” the person said. “I said it’s better to lock yourself in.”
Yet sympathy in Starobilsk remains divided, as they have been since Russia began promoting an armed separatist insurgency in 2014 in response to its pro-European Maidan revolution. Ukraine.
While some residents turned partisan, sneaking out at night to tear up the Russian flag and replace it with a Ukrainian flag, others marked their cars with the letter “Z” – the symbol of the invasion of Russia.
The man said that attempts to evade taking part in a referendum he considers bogus could result in neighbors notifying him to local authorities installed by Moscow.
Potentially scarier, the man said, is what might happen after the vote. No one doubted that the published results would favor joining Russia, but then he feared that he and other men in occupied Ukraine might be mobilized to fight for Russia and against their own countrymen.
Authorities say the “voting” will take place from Friday until Tuesday but will be held at local polling stations only on Tuesdays. On other days, they said in a statement, “residents will be able to vote on the future of the Republic in specially organized places … in neighboring territories, areas public and other places suitable for voting equipment.”
They describe a process in which residents 18 years of age or older with accepted identification can essentially request to vote anywhere, even if they are not listed. register.
But in a sign of the exercise’s pretense, authorities warned that “multiple voting is prohibited” and anyone caught could be fined up to 3,000 rubles (about $50). la) – admit that Russian currency has been accepted in the territory – or be imprisoned for up to three years.
The Kremlin has taken a series of other steps to coerce regions into joining Russia: replacing Ukrainian news with Russian propaganda channels, forcing citizens to hold Russian passports for social benefits, and imposing a policy on the Russian government. Russian educational program to teach Ukrainian children that their country is not a sovereign state but part of the “Russian world”.
Some pro-Russian officials in occupied Ukraine have urged push for the votes to be held regardless of Russia’s lack of control over the regions, noting that the results will never be accepted by the international community. recognized and, in fact, world leaders have outspokenly condemned the process. condition.
In a statement on Friday, the Group of Seven leaders condemned the “fake referendum that Russia attempted to use to create a false pretext to change the status of the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” , which is under Russian aggression. These actions clearly violate the Charter of the United Nations and international law and go completely against the principle of the rule of law between states,” the statement read.
In one video is broadcast Russian state propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, officials watch as residents of the Donetsk region mark ballots in the hallway of an apartment complex.
Ivan Fedorov, Ukraine’s mayor of Melitopol, a city under Russian control in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, said the occupying authorities would carry out a “fake referendum” and the people usually work on the city’s voting committee “refused to do this en masse. “
Fedorov was abducted by Russian forces in March before he was released in what Ukrainian officials called “a special operation”. Like many democratically elected officials from the occupied areas, he was ruling from outside Melitopol but was still in contact with many of the people living there.
Fedorov said that the Moscow-backed puppet government “doesn’t even plan to go door-to-door”. “For the 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,” said Fedorov, “because they understand that this is happening for a number of reasons, including mobilization.”
Fedorov has advised people to leave the occupied area by any means possible. He had been told that men between the ages of 18 and 35 were no longer allowed through the checkpoints, so he suggested citizens try to get out through Crimea, and then escape abroad.
A similarly staged referendum would have occurred in the northeastern region of Kharkiv had it not been for the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive forcing Russian troops to withdraw.
In the recently liberated city of Izyum, the mayor’s secretary, Kostiantyn Petrov, said he found the orchestrated votes very confusing. “It is difficult to understand Putin,” said Petrov. “He thinks this referendum will legitimize the occupation of these regions. He wanted to show that people wanted to see the Russians there. But such a vote under the threat of a rifle cannot be legalized by any civilized nation.”
Petrov said that, based on accounts of how Russian forces treated civilians in Izyum, he expected similar tactics in referendums held in other regions. “If you don’t vote for Russia,” he said, “they probably won’t give you aid.”
Anton Chernyshov, 31, a survivor of the occupation of Izyum, is now a volunteer distributing humanitarian aid to a large portion of the population still struggling to make ends meet. If a referendum were to take place in Izyum, he said, most of the Remainers would not vote.
With power outages and mobile networks still unreliable, many citizens are unaware of Putin’s plans to hold referendums.
Luba, a 59-year-old woman, stormed into the courtyard of a building housing the city’s temporary offices on Thursday, complaining about how little aid was reaching residents. She held up a bag of pasta, a can of beans, and a can of meat, shouting that she had to share the meager things with several families.
Luba said she hasn’t heard of any recent updates on the polls – she’s just focused on securing more food. “I don’t know anything,” she said. “No electricity.”
Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and O’Grady from Izyum, Ukraine. Sergii Mukaieliants of Izyum contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
Latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial deployment” of the military in a speech to the nation on September 21, seeing the move as an attempt to defend Russia’s sovereignty against a West seeking to using Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Our Watch Live updates here.
The struggle: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced Russia into a major retreat in the northeastern region of Kharkiv in recent days, as troops flee the cities and villages they have occupied since the early days of the conflict. war and give up large amounts of military equipment.
The annexation referendums: Organized referendums, which would be illegal under international law, will take place from September 23 to 27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to news agencies. Russian tons. Another organized referendum will be held by Moscow-appointed authorities in Kherson starting Friday.
Picture: Washington Post photographers were present from the very beginning of the war – here are some of their most powerful work.