The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Staged referendums yield expected result as Russia readies annexations

A woman casts her ballot in Luhansk, Ukraine, on Sept. 27 as the staged referendums in four regions partly controlled by Russian forces came to a close. (AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to illegally annex four partially occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine lurched forward Tuesday, as Russian officials and Kremlin proxy leaders claimed that staged referendums showed that more than 95 percent of voters want to join Russia — an absurd level of support.

Defying international condemnation and threats of additional Western economic sanctions, Putin could declare Russia’s absorption of the four regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — as soon as Friday, the British Defense Ministry said.

Western leaders, including President Biden, have denounced the staged referendums, which are illegal under Ukrainian and international law, as a “sham.”

Moscow does not fully control any of the four Ukrainian regions, either militarily or politically. And its war against Ukraine has taken another disastrous turn in recent days, as Putin’s declaration of a partial military mobilization has led more than 180,000 Russians to leave the country to escape potential conscription, according to the neighboring countries of Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland. The total is likely much higher.

Putin has signaled that, upon annexation of the four territories, he would consider any attack on Russian forces in them to be an attack on Russia itself, potentially justifying a ferocious response. Former president Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday reiterated threats that Russia could use a nuclear weapon.

“I have to remind you again — for those deaf who hear only themselves. Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel, adding a taunt that NATO countries would not intervene even if Russia used a nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

“The security of Washington, London, and Brussels is much more important for the North Atlantic alliance than the fate of a dying Ukraine, which no one needs,” wrote Medvedev, who is now deputy head of Russia’s security council. “Overseas and European demagogues are not going to perish in a nuclear apocalypse,” he added. “Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict.”

The referendums in many areas were carried out at gunpoint, with residents visited in their homes and forced to answer a single question about joining Russia.

A woman who lives in the city of Luhansk — the regional capital of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, which has been controlled by Kremlin proxies since 2014 — said armed individuals had been going door to door and visiting businesses to collect ballots on which residents could check “yes” or “no” on joining Russia. The woman spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Tuesday was announced as a day off, with schools closed, and the woman said voting stations were set up around town for anyone who had not already gotten a chance to vote. People were asked only for their names and addresses instead of any passport data, which the woman said she suspected made the results easier to falsify. She said some residents expected to be protected if part of a nuclear-armed Russia.

“People understand that everything has been decided,” she said. “They think that this will end something, because a ‘republic’ is easy to hit with all of the support of NATO. But people think it’ll be different if it’s Russia. I hear people saying that Ukraine doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and Ukraine won’t shell here anymore if we’re part of a country that does.”

Despite the obviously rigged nature of the vote, Russian officials insisted it was legitimate.

“Both by turnout and by the absence of serious violations, the referendums can be considered valid,” Sergey Tsekov, a former Ukrainian politician turned Russian senator from Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, told RIA Novosti. “The referendums were held in accordance with international norms, legislation, and can be recognized as legitimate.”

Tsekov also said the Russian government was considering forming a new federal district that would serve as a governing umbrella for the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Russia currently has eight federal districts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Moscow’s referendums will not change his military’s defense of Ukrainian sovereign territory, and he has pledged to recapture all occupied areas, including Crimea.

In an address by video link at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Zelensky stressed Tuesday that Western leaders must take “preventive” actions now rather than waiting to see what Russia will do in the future. He accused Putin of “nuclear blackmail” and warned of the potential of a cataclysmic attack.

Although Ukraine has agreed not to strike territorial Russia with U.S.-made weapons, U.S. officials have said that restriction would not apply to illegally annexed territory. Ukrainian forces have regularly struck targets in Crimea as well as in the northern Russian Belgorod region, which they can now reach with Ukraine’s own weapons after taking ground during a successful counteroffensive in northeast Kharkiv.

The war continues to draw in other targets. On Monday, dual explosions damaged the underwater pipelines of the Nord Stream projects that were built to carry natural gas from Russia to Europe. Leaders in Europe called the actions sabotage, with some blaming Moscow. The Kremlin denied responsibility.

The referendums remained the greatest focus, however. Pro-Kremlin leaders in Luhansk quickly declared theirs “accomplished” on Tuesday, and the leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, said he hoped to travel to Moscow to give Putin a written request to absorb the territory.

Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, the Russian parliament’s upper house, floated the possibility that lawmakers would ratify the annexation on Oct. 4.

With fears in Russia that Putin’s impending annexation announcement could be accompanied by a declaration of martial law, the exodus from Russia of fighting-age men trying to escape military mobilization appeared to be reaching critical levels Tuesday. Border crossings and checkpoints saw traffic jams, some with thousands of cars, and equally extraordinary lines.

Authorities of the North Ossetia region that borders Georgia, which has been one of the main transit hubs for fleeing Russians, said Tuesday that they were considering whether to declare a state of emergency.

“The influx is too big,” the head of the region, Sergey Menyailo, said in an interview on a social media channel run by Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian television presenter and Kremlin propagandist.

“We can’t close the passage to the republic,” Menyailo said. “But the issue is very complicated, and, most likely, I will decide to introduce a partial state of emergency.”

The North Ossetia branch of the Russian Interior Ministry said it would set up a makeshift enlistment office next to the Verkhny Lars crossing.

“Russia’s leaders almost certainly hope that any accession announcement will be seen as a vindication of the ‘special military operation’ and will consolidate patriotic support for the conflict,” the British Defense Ministry said in its Tuesday report on the Ukraine war. Yet the chaos surrounding the “partial mobilization” would undermine the Kremlin’s claims of success in the war effort, the ministry noted.

In the latest sign of the botched mobilization, Sergei Nosov, governor of the Magadan region in Russia’s Far East, announced Tuesday that the local military commissar had been dismissed after dozens of men were mistakenly summoned for duty despite being too old or otherwise being exempt.

Human rights groups reported that some Russians have been turned back from border posts, citing decisions passed down from their local military commissariats banning departures from the country.

Georgia said it had bolstered the number of guards at the checkpoint but saw no reason to close the border. Internal Affairs Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said about 10,000 Russians are arriving in the country daily, almost double the number on Sept. 21, when the mobilization was announced.

In Kazakhstan, another neighboring country that permits visa-free entry for individuals with Russian passports, residents of the border city of Uralsk refurbished a movie theater into a temporary shelter for those who could not find hotel rooms or apartments to rent.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Tuesday that his country has an obligation to help the arriving Russians. The Kazakh Interior Ministry estimated that 98,000 people had come in less than a week, with 64,000 then leaving for other destinations.

“In recent days, many people from Russia have been coming to us,” Tokayev said. “Most of them are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue.”

Underscoring a growing rift with the Kremlin over the invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakh leader also called for respect for territorial integrity, alluding to the annexation referendums. And he took an indirect swipe at Putin, who has been in power since 2000, saying that if just one person rules a country for years, “this does not do honor either to this country or its leader.”

Paul Sonne contributed to this report.

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