Referendums in eastern Ukraine: “free voting” supervised by armed soldiers

Vladimir Putin (photo by shutterstock)

Many Ukrainian citizens have been reporting in recent days about armed soldiers going door to door in occupied areas of the country to gather votes for a self-styled “referendum” on joining Russia. “You have to answer verbally and the soldier marks the answer on the sheet and keeps it,” one woman in Anerhoder told the BBC.

In southern Kherson, Russian guards stood with ballot boxes in the middle of the city to collect people’s votes. The door-to-door voting is for “security”, they say in the Russian state media: “In-person voting will take place exclusively on September 27”, the TASS agency reported. “On the other days, voting will be organized in the communities and in a door-to-door manner.”

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One woman in Melitopol told the BBC that two local “collaborators” came with two Russian soldiers to her parents’ apartment to give them a note to sign: “My father put ‘no’ [להצטרפות לרוסיה],” said the woman. “My mother was standing by, and asked what would happen if you put in ‘no’. They said ‘nothing’. “Mom is worried now that the Russians will chase them.” The woman also said there was one ballot for the entire household, not per person.

Although the evidence is anecdotal, the presence of armed men running the vote contradicts Moscow’s insistence that it was a free or fair process. Experts say the self-styled referendum, which is being held over five days, will allow Russia to claim – illegally – four occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine as its own. In other words, a false vote on annexation, seven months to the invasion of Russia.

The “annexation” will not be recognized internationally, but could lead to Russia claiming that its territory is under attack from Western weapons supplied to Ukraine, which could further escalate the war.

US President Joe Biden described the referendum as a “sham”, saying they were a “false excuse” to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in violation of international law: “The US will never recognize the territory of Ukraine as anything other than part of Ukraine,” he said.

British Foreign Secretary James Calverley said Britain had evidence that Russian officials had already set targets to “invent turnout and approval rates for these sham referendums”. According to him, Russia plans to formalize the annexation of the four regions – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia – by the end of the month.

A source in Bharson told the BBC there was no public effort to encourage voting, apart from an announcement on the Russian news agency that people could vote in a building at the port.

Another woman in Kherson said she saw “armed militants” outside the building where voting appeared to be taking place. She pretended she forgot her passport, so she didn’t have to vote. The woman said all her friends and family were against the referendum. “We don’t know how our lives will be after this referendum,” she said. “It is very difficult to understand what they want to do.” Kyiv says that the referendums will not change anything, and its forces will continue to push for the liberation of all territories.

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Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent call-up of at least 300,000 additional troops has caused many Russian men of military age to flee. One young Russian who left St Petersburg for Kazakhstan to avoid conscription told the BBC World Service’s “Outside Source” program that most of his friends were also on the move. “Right now, I feel like it’s a complete collapse. I only know maybe one or two people who aren’t thinking about exile right now,” he said.

He said some, like him, cross the border, while others go to small Russian villages to hide. “Russia’s big problem is that we didn’t think about the war in Ukraine in February the way we think about it now,” he said.

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