The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Kalashnikov rifles, Russia drives the staged vote in Ukraine

Police officers detain a man in Moscow on Saturday amid protests against President Vladimir Putin's military mobilization order. (AFP/Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — Officials in Russian-occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine were forcing people to vote “under a gun barrel,” residents said on Saturday as staged referendums — intended to validate Moscow’s annexation of the territory it occupies — entered their second day.

Voting is taking place in portions of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions and will last five days, ending Tuesday. The outcome is not in doubt.

The purported referendums are illegal under Ukrainian and international law and would not remotely meet basic democratic standards for free and fair elections. Western leaders, including President Biden, have denounced the process as a “sham” to prepare the ground for Russia’s theft of Ukrainian land.

In his nightly address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke directly to the Russians, warning that “no tricks will help the occupier.”

Moscow officials and their separatist proxies have said that they expect the vote to be in favor of absorbing the areas, a process that will be completed “promptly” once the results are official, according to the Kremlin.

Voronezh

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Four regions

where staged

referendums

on joining Russia

are being held

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Valuyki

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Luhansk

Slovyansk

Dnipro

Donetsk

Kirovohrad

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

Rostov-

on-Don

ZAPORIZHZHIA

Mariupol

Mykolaiv

Melitopol

KHERSON

MOL.

Kherson

Odessa

RUSSIA

Kerch

CRIMEA

Krasnodar

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

ROM.

Novorossiysk

Sevastopol

Black Sea

Control areas as of Sept. 23

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Russian-held

areas

Voronezh

BELARUS

Four regions

where staged

referendums on

joining Russia

are being held

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Poltava

Cherkasy

Kramatorsk

Dnipro

Uman

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

Rostov-

on-Don

ZAPORIZ.

Mariupol

Mykolayiv

Melitopol

KHERSON

Kherson

Odessa

RUSSIA

Crimea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Novorossiysk

Sevastopol

100 MILES

Control areas as of Sept. 23

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Russian-held

areas

Four regions

where staged

referendums on

joining Russia

are being held

BEL.

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Dnipro

DONETSK

Rostov-

on-Don

ZAPORIZ.

Mykolayiv

KHERSON

Kherson

RUS.

Odessa

Crimea

Sevastopol

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

Black Sea

Control areas as of Sept. 23

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

The speed at which the referendums were announced and carried out and the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian reserves, all within one week, reflect the Kremlin’s tacit acknowledgment of its deteriorating position in Ukraine. After invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 and failing to take the capital, Kyiv, Russian forces have been pushed back in the country’s northeast and are coming under pressure along the front lines of the war.

Hundreds more people were arrested Saturday during demonstrations in Russia against the mobilization.

Zelensky appealed to the protesters directly by switching to Russian for part of his nightly address on Saturday. “Russian commanders do not care about the lives of Russians — they just need to replenish the empty spaces left by the dead, wounded, those who fled or the Russian soldiers that were captured,” he said.

Ukrainians who are in contact with friends and relatives in the occupied territories describe groups of men armed with Kalashnikov rifles, accompanied by a person with a portable ballot box, going door-to-door in apartment buildings and houses.

“The referendum is taking place in the occupied city of Kherson under the muzzle of an automatic rifle,” said Galina Luhova, head of the Kherson City Military Administration, who now lives in Ukrainian-controlled territory. “They ring the doorbell of apartments, knock down the doors of those who don’t open them and demand that people come out and put a mark that they agree to join the Russian Federation.”

Luhova said she spoke to 11 people still living in the Kherson region who told her that they pretend they are not at home, or leave their apartments for extended periods, while the armed groups make their rounds. “People are frightened,” Luhova said.

Propaganda newspapers show how Russia promoted annexation in Kharkiv

Serhii Nikitenko, a Ukrainian journalist who said he’s spoken to three friends over the last two days, said that mobile groups also visit schools, hospitals and other workplaces where officials “can collect a certain number of votes.”

In a late-night address on Friday, Zelensky also called the referendums a “sham” — echoing Western leaders.

“These are not just crimes against international law and the law of Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “These are crimes against specific people, against the nation.”

Zelensky also said that occupation authorities had begun to mobilize local Ukrainians to fight against Kyiv forces, a prospect that Ukrainians should avoid “by any means.”

If they do end up drafted, however, Zelensky called on them to “sabotage any activity of the enemy, hinder any Russian operations, provide us with any important information about the occupiers” and, at the first opportunity, “switch to our positions.”

Meanwhile, the “partial mobilization” of Russian men to bolster beleaguered troops in Ukraine, announced by Putin this past week, appeared to be encountering obstacles.

Putin faces fury in Russia over military mobilization and prisoner swap

Numerous videos have emerged of newly minted draftees staggering around drunk, throwing punches, shouting at military officers, cursing when told to form lines, and in Primorye territory in the Far East, swearing at the rusted-out Kalashnikovs they were handed.

On Saturday, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya and a close Putin ally, appeared to acknowledge the problem of the poor quality of recruits, saying that half of Russia’s 5 million police and law enforcement officials should be drafted instead.

Also on Saturday, at least 750 people were arrested in protests throughout the country, according to rights monitor OVD-Info. Independent Russian outlets have posted videos of police beating protesters, most of them young people, before dragging them to police vans. The total number of arrests since Putin announced the mobilization is 2,080 according to OVD-Info.

Many of those arrested earlier in the week had been summonsed for Russian military service, state media reported.

A military enlistment office in the Krasnoyarsk region, according to local media outlet ChP Kansk, was one of at least 10 attacked in cities and towns across Russia since mobilization was announced.

At the same time, Putin signed a law toughening penalties for desertion and “voluntary surrender” during military operations. He also fast-tracked Russian citizenship for foreigners who joined the fight against Ukraine — a move designed to appeal to the many migrant workers in Russia from former Soviet Central Asian countries. On Wednesday, however, those countries’ Moscow embassies issued warnings to their citizens that it was illegal to participate in a foreign war.

Ukrainian officials said that their armed forces continued to make gains in the country’s south and east, though that information could not be verified because journalists are barred from reporting from front-line positions.

On Friday, Zelensky said that Russian forces sent Iranian-made drones to attack the Dnipropetrovsk region in Ukraine’s southeast and the city of Odessa on the Black Sea. Previously, U.S. officials said that Tehran had supplied combat drones to Russia.

Zelensky promised a “tough response” and “corresponding consequences” to the “collaboration with evil.” On Friday, Ukrainian officials announced they had stripped the Iranian ambassador to Ukraine of his accreditation and moved to significantly reduce the number of personnel at the Iranian Embassy in Kyiv.

Tehran officials said on Saturday that they regretted the Ukrainians’ move, which they said was based on “unconfirmed reports” and “media manipulation.”

As the staged referendums proceeded, Russian officials attempted to lend the process an appearance of legitimacy, following a playbook that they have used in previous orchestrated votes, such as a similar staged referendum setting up Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Russian media showed images of people lined up outside voting stations, but Ukrainian officials said that they had either bused in from elsewhere or were soldiers wearing civilian clothing. So-called international observers gave their blessing to the proceedings. One of them, Eliseo Bertolasi from Italy, observed the 2018 general elections in the Donetsk People’s Republic, the unrecognized Moscow-supported separatist state in eastern Ukraine.

After one day, election officials said that about 15 percent of the total electorate in the Russian-controlled regions had voted, Russia’s RIA Novosti reported.

Luhova said her contacts “cried and cried and cried” because of what was transpiring: the staged referendum and the prospect that Russia would try to absorb the region.

“Russia is trying to paint a situation that doesn’t exist in Kherson,” she said. “People just clenched their teeth and clenched their fists, waiting for the armed forces of Ukraine to free the city.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Nick Parker and Maria Sacchetti in Washington contributed to this report.

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