War in Ukraine: occupied eastern regions start voting in ‘fascist referendum’

Four occupied regions in Ukraine will start voting on Friday in Kremlin-designed referendums on whether to join Russia, setting the stage for Moscow’s annexation of the areas in a sharp escalation of the nearly seven-month war.

Ukraine and its Western allies rejected the votes as illegitimate and neither free nor fair, saying they will have no binding force.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden both branded the votes as “referendum phases” this week, while French President Emmanuel Macron said they “would have no legal consequences” and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has them. called “noise” to distract the audience.

Authorities in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk which make up Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas abruptly announced just three days ago that referendums on joining Russia would be held starting Friday. Moscow-backed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south also voted.

The moves followed months of mixed signals from Moscow and separatist officials on referendums reflecting changes on the battlefield.

During the summer, when the Kremlin was hoping for a quick takeover of the entire Donbas region, local officials discussed organizing the polls in September.

Russian troops and local separatist forces have taken control of virtually the entire Luhansk region, but only about 60% of the Donetsk region. The slow pace of the Russian offensive in the east and the Ukrainian push to reclaim areas in the Kherson region have made officials in Moscow discuss the postponement of votes until November.

The Kremlin’s plans changed again after a lightning-fast Ukrainian counteroffensive this month forced Russian troops to withdraw from large swathes of the northeastern region of Kharkiv and raised the prospect of further gains from Kiev forces.

Observers say that by moving swiftly to absorb conquered territories in Russia, the Kremlin hopes to force Ukraine to stop its counter-offensive and accept current areas of occupation or face devastating retaliation.

The five-day voting process will take place in the absence of independent monitors and will offer ample room to manipulate the outcome.

Referendums are a familiar Russian tactic

If hastily organized referendums seem familiar, it is because it is a tactic used by Russia previously.

In 2014, it held a hastily called referendum in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, also denounced by the West as illegal and illegitimate. Moscow used the vote as a justification for annexing the Black Sea in a move that was not recognized by most of the world’s peninsula.

The 2014 vote in Crimea took place under close surveillance by Russian troops shortly after they crossed the peninsula, where most of the residents were pro-Moscow.

Separatists who have controlled large portions of the Donbas since 2014 have long pushed to join Russia and have shown little tolerance for dissent. When the rebellion erupted there, the separatists quickly organized referendums in which the majority voted to join Russia, but the Kremlin ignored the result.

The two regions declared their independence from Ukraine weeks after the annexation of Crimea, sparking eight years of fighting that President Vladimir Putin used as a pretext to launch an invasion in February to protect their residents.

Anti-Russian opposition in southern Ukraine

In the southern regions, occupied by Russian troops in the first days of the invasion, anti-Russian sentiments are strong. Hundreds of pro-Kiev activists were arrested, many of whom claimed to have been tortured. Others were forcibly deported and tens of thousands fled.

Since Russian forces entered the Kherson region and parts of the Zaporizhzhia region, Moscow-appointed authorities have stopped Ukrainian television broadcasts, replacing them with Russian programs. They distributed Russian passports to residents, introduced the ruble, and even issued Russian license plates to pave the way for their incorporation into Russia.

Moscow-appointed administrations have come under frequent attacks by members of the Ukrainian resistance movement, which killed local officials, bombed polling stations and other government buildings, and helped the Ukrainian military target key infrastructure.