“Vote and You’ll Lose.” How Russia Is Preparing the Ground for Fake Referendums in the Occupied Territories

Having launched a full-scale invasion, Russia stopped even trying to hide its aggressive plans for Ukraine. 

However, the Kremlin does not abandon attempts to at least apparently “legitimize” its actions. This is evidenced by the permanent spread of new information on the topic of “referendums” in the occupied territories. 

However, those Russian high-ranking officials who make the decisions or at least voice the official position of the RF keep silence. The Kremlin distances itself from the topic. 

On August 8, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured that “referendums are to be conducted not by Russia but by the local population.” Administrators of anonymous Telegram channels and groups on social networks, local collaborators, and representatives of occupation administrations, Russian propagandists and political commentators are left to comment on the situation. 

At best, MPs of the State Duma of the RF, who are sometimes “suddenly” asked by employees of governmental and partially governmental media, are asked about “referendums.”    

Through the above channels, inconsistent messages on the format, dates, and geography of “referendums” are periodically spread in the information space. From time to time, statements about their uselessness and proposals appear to simply declare the occupied territories part of the RF. Sometimes the same person makes the opposite statements. 

The Kherson collaborator Kirill Stremousov stated on May 11 that “Kherson is Russia” and “there will be no referendums.”

And in two weeks he announced the voting and even “predicted” its results: “In Kherson oblast, a referendum will be held, where at least 60-70% of residents will vote for joining Russia.” 

On September 5, he assured that everything goes to plan and “the referendum will take place in any weather.

Not the First Pseudo-Referendum

The Kremlin has already worked out the technique of pseudo-referendums at gunpoint in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Sevastopol, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in 2014. However, the Russians did not invent a wheel. 

In 1938, the world watched the Anschluss organized by Hitler’s Germany. The Nazis declared that the results of the “plebiscite” testified to the support for Austria’s “reunification” with the Third Reich at 99%.

In local conflicts that broke out in the post-Soviet space in the 1990s, not without the participation of Russian special services, plebiscites were used to weaken new independent states and strengthen their dependence on the Kremlin.

Such “expressions of free will” happened in Crimea (1991), Transnistria (1991), South Ossetia (1992), and the Narva region of Estonia (1993). 

In addition to autonomy and independence, pro-Russian referendums sometimes raised the issue of “reunification” with Russia, but back in the nineties, Moscow did not dare to open annexation.

The Crimean “referendum” in 2014 became a precedent in the recent history of the RF. For the first time after the collapse of the USSR, the Kremlin performed illegal annexation under the cover of the “manifestation of will” of the local population. 

Also read: Threats of Forced Issuance of Passports on Russia-Occupied Territories

The declared voting result — 96% “in favour” — fell short of the figures of the Nazis in Austria in 1938.

Notably, during the preparation for the referendum, inhabitants of Crimea were initially prepared for voting for “secession from Ukraine” and “independence,” which was considered as a transition period before “reuniting with the motherland.” 

The new formulation of the question in the ballots was published only on March 6 — 10 days before the “voting.”

Photo by: Radio Liberty

Propagandists assured the residents of Donbas that the proclamation of “independence” of “LPR” and “DPR” would automatically lead to the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of peace in Donbas. 

In Donetsk oblast, the organizers of the “referendum” “reported” 89%, and in Luhansk oblast — 96% of the support for “young republics.” The Kremlin did not go for the annexation of the occupied areas of Donbas, despite the hope of pro-Russian part of the local population. 

The region became a tool for destabilization of Ukraine, and its inhabitants — a resource for propaganda and military adventures of the Putin regime. 

Photo by: Radio Liberty

“Referendum” Scenarios

Several referendum options are being spread in the information space:

●      on the accession of the pseudo-republics “DPR” and “LPR” to Russia;

●      on the separation of the occupied territories from Ukraine and the creation of new “people’s republics.” These messages were most actively promoted in the spring in Kherson oblast;

●      on the accession of the occupied territories to the RF. In the northern part of Kharkiv oblast, residents were hinted at the possibility of including certain districts and settlements in the neighbouring Belgorod oblast of the RF.

Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the “LPR,” spoke about the referendum on 27 March. However, on the same day, he refuted his statement. Saying that first it was necessary to reach the administrative borders of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and then to raise this question.

The dates of the potential “referendums” were repeatedly postponed. In particular, they were April 27, the first half of MaySeptember 11 (the Single Voting Day in the RF and the 21st anniversary of the attack on the twin towers in New York), the end of October, November 4 (the Russian Unity Day).

Preparatory Activities

On July 23, heads of occupation administrations of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts announced that they were preparing for the “manifestation of will” and forming election commissions. On August 8, Yevhen Balytskyi in Melitopol publicly signed the relevant “decree.”

Read also: Six Months of the Full-Scale War: Ukraine’s 12 Main Victories on the Information Front

Kirill Stremousov limited himself to oral statements. Collaborators also announced their intention to apply for help to the Central Election Commission of the RF.

At the same time, the head of the occupational “military-civil administration” of Kharkiv oblast Vitalii Hanchev repeatedly made statements about the “untimely nature” of the “referendum,” with Russians controlling only a fifth of the territory of the region. 

Russian propaganda is working to create an illusion of mass support for the ideas of the accession of the occupied territories to the RF, and is also actively working with the local population. To solve the first problem, public meetings and rallies were organized. 

Newly created “public councils” under the occupation administrations, “associations of veterans,” “councils of women,” and other similar groups of random people approved appeals in support of the referendum. 

Ukrainian intelligence reported that the participants of the rallies received money and food kits from the occupiers. There were also cases when activists of “Rosmolodezh,” “Young Guard,” and other organizations brought from Russia played the role of locals.

To influence the population of the occupied territories, the following means are involved:

●      means of visual propaganda. In settlements, advertising space is occupied by boards with Putin’s quotes and slogans “Russia is here forever” and “We are one people”;

PHOTO: Vgoru

●      leaflets, free campaign newspapers, and other printed products;

●      Russian television and radio broadcasting stories about “happy life” under occupation and its mass support;

●      Telegram channels and communities in social networks created for information support of the occupation;

●      face-to-face campaigning involving local collaborators and United Russia activists. They process people during the registration and issuance of cash payments, food kits, and Russian passports. Guides for communication with the population are also available for the servicemen of the occupying state;

●      information blockade of the occupied territories: suppression of Ukrainian television and radio signal, blocking of Ukrainian websites, deterioration of communication quality, etc.    

People are being persuaded that:

●      Ukraine will not be able to retake the captured territories (“Russia is here forever”);

●      Ukraine considers the inhabitants of the occupied territories to be traitors and intends to punish them;

●      Russia guarantees security, stability, pensions, jobs, reconstruction of what was destroyed, etc. to the civilian population;

●      Ukraine, the US, and NATO, not Russia, are responsible for the war, death, and destruction.

The preparation and conducting of “referendums” are hindered not only by active hostilities, but also by the lack of access of the occupiers to the Ukrainian voter register. 

To correct this situation, Russians collect personal data of locals under the pretext of registration of payments, humanitarian assistance, medicines, issuance of temporary pension certificates of the Russian sample, etc. Forced passportization of the population is in progress.

Police units formed in the occupied territories consisting of Russians and local collaborators can also be considered a component of preparation for pseudo-referendums. After all, these “law enforcement officers” will be instructed with maintaining the “public order” during the “manifestation of will,” including at polling stations. 

Forced severance of economic relations, prompting the population to switch to paying in rubles and removal of hryvnia from circulation, inclusion into the Russian information space should create an illusion with the population of the occupied territories that “Ukraine has abandoned them,” and encourage people to accept “Russian rules.”

British intelligence reported that in mid-August, preparations for pseudo-referendums in Donbas were in one of the final stages. 

At the end of the month, The Insider published documents with a scenario of plebiscites and their PR accompaniment. Kremlin political technologists are focused on ensuring a 70% turnout and support for the issue put to the vote at the same level.

Russian sociologists seem to be guided by these indicators as well. On September 7, the Republican Institute of Political and Sociological Studies (RIPSI) (Simferopol) and the “INSOMAR” company announced the conducting of surveys in the occupied cities of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. 

The “results” were reported by Russian Telegram channels and propaganda media, and were referred to by the Secretary of the General Council of “United Russia” Andrey Turchak. 

The publication of the paid-for sociology is a well-known technique for legitimizing the results desired by the customer.

Deputy Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Serhii Danilov cites insufficient number of collaborators and extremely low level of public support for the occupiers among the problems that the organizers of pseudo-referendums in the South of Ukraine encountered. Therefore, the Russians promise to visit those who will ignore the voting.

“There are not enough people, there is zero support. The situation is being moderated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine and local guerrillas. Intimidation is the recognition of hostility towards the occupation. The operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the right bank of the Dnipro in general questions all this,” the expert stated.

According to Danilov, the occupation administration sent residents of Henichesk and Novotroitsk districts, who are to work in election commissions later, to Simferopol for training.

Despite the permanent stirring up of the topic of “referendums,” propaganda is working on option B. Messages about the unjustified or untimely nature of the plebiscite are spread in the information space from time to time. The following arguments are cited:

●    “Referendum” cannot be held under shelling;

●      voting in Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv oblasts is inexpedient without establishing control over most of the oblasts and oblast centres;

●      referendums are possible only after the completion of the “special operation” and “full stabilization” (without specifying what exactly is meant);

●      accession can take place without “referendums” because “liberated” regions are “already Russia.” 

Consequently, the occupation administrations and supporters of the “Russian world” always have an excuse why the promised “referendums” are not held. Especially since Russian officials did not make any specific statements on this topic and did not make any promises.

Why Would Russia Need That?  

No “voting” in the occupied territories will have legal consequences and be recognized by the international community. Exceptions may be made only by a few rogue states from among the “friends” of the RF. However, with the help of pseudo-referendums or preparations for them, the Kremlin tries to solve several problems.

●      present the internal audience with Putin’s formalized “victory” as a “collector of Russian lands” and proof that the RF did not occupy, but “liberated” the captured regions;

●      provide Russian diplomats with a few arguments regarding the «total support» for the occupation by the local population. The worthlessness of these arguments is not considered;

●      strengthen the position of propaganda targeting foreign audiences, shifting the focus from armed aggression and occupation to supposedly “democratic procedures” and fake “manifestation of will.” The Kremlin obviously counts on the fact that this will have an impact on the inhabitants of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America;

●      in the case of annexation of Ukraine, the fight to restore territorial integrity could be called “an aggression against Russia” and use this argument to mobilize its own population, disorient foreigners, and justify threats of use of nuclear weapons.

Russia’s tactics comes down to a regular “raising of stakes,” which should force the world to “reckon with Russia,” to accept the forceful change of borders in Europe, and other brutal violations of international law. However, the position of the military and political leadership of Ukraine and partner states remains unchanged. 

Representatives of the Ukrainian government recommend citizens of the occupied territories to avoid “voting” if possible, and remind that criminal liability has been provided for participation in the organization of such events (campaigning, working as commission members and observers).

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said back in August that “if Russian occupation forces decide to hold at least one pseudo-referendum in the occupied territories of Ukraine, there will be no possibility for negotiations with Russia.”

The readiness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to restore territorial integrity by military means and understanding of challenges was confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi in an article published on September 7. 

Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security

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