Kremlin struggles with 'referenda' in occupied Ukrainian land

Once again the Kremlin has miscalculated in the war against Ukraine. The Russians were confident that they would conquer the whole of Donbass this summer and organise 'referenda' in the southern cities of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. But the offensive has grinded to a halt. Russia might have to postpone the annexation once again, till winter, argues political analist Andrey Pertsev for Meduza. They will blame the military.

z mariupol mensen in de rij voor waterIn devastated Mariupol people queue for water

by Andrey Pertsev

Russia’s war against Ukraine appears to have reached a deadlock. Be that as it may, two of Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin say that the Putin administration still hasn’t abandoned the idea of holding pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine this fall. 

As Meduza reported previously, Moscow has long planned to stage referendums in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions as a step towards annexing captured Ukrainian territory. Kremlin officials hoped to time the “votes” to coincide with the gubernatorial and regional elections in Russia scheduled for September 11. 

However, Moscow’s plan hinged on its troops and proxies in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic capturing the entire Donetsk region before this date. According to Meduza’s analysis, Russia has hardly advanced in the region in the last month and only controls about 60 percent of its territory at present. 

As a result, the Putin administration is now considering another option: holding the referendums as planned, on September 11, but only annexing 60 percent of the Donetsk region. If Russian forces manage to capture the rest of the region at a later date, this territory will be incorporated into Russia 'by default'. 

Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin emphasize that in May and June, the Russian authorities believed that by September, the Donetsk region would have been under their control 'for some time already'. As a result, they assumed it would be possible to 'calmly' organize a referendum. But Moscow has misjudged the situation at the front yet again. 

According to Meduza’s sources, Russian officials are loath to postpone the referendums once again, having initially planned them for the spring. Moreover, the Russian-installed authorities in occupied territories of Ukraine have already begun making formal preparations, and have even put up public announcements on billboards. 

That said, the Putin administration is also working on a backup plan, which would involve pushing the referendums until this winter. Kremlin officials hope that Russian troops will be able to capture the entire Donetsk region by December or January — without losing control over any of the other occupied territories. According to Meduza’s sources, a scenario involving winter referendums is becoming 'more and more likely'.

cherson propagandaposter referendumKherson is a Russian town - propaganda for the referendum for annexation into Russia

No ideological explanation for Russian 'referenda'

During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin invented an ideological justification for the land grab. This time, with the upcoming 'referenda' on the future of South-Ukraine, scheduled for 11 September, the Kremlin not even tries to find arguments in favour. 

For the Russian website Riddle Russia Andrey Pertsev analyses this lack of any ideology: 'The Russian authorities are not even trying to convince residents who had no intentions of joining Russia before the war of anything. That said, eight years ago an ideological campaign did precede the referendum in Crimea. Now President Putin is simply collecting lands of the former Soviet Union, whose collapse he regrets. The Kremlin is not going to truly take into account the opinion of their residents. Thus, it is campaigning in line with a modern Russian tradition intended to show Putin expected numbers and to enable officials and spin doctors to earn money. [...]

'In essence, the residents of the regions occupied by Russian troops are being told: you have to stand with Russia to rebuild houses, schools and hospitals destroyed by the Russian army', says Pertsev. 

At the same time, Kremlin officials understand that further delaying the referendums risks confounding those who support the war. 'People will understand that something is going wrong, there are miscalculations. They might see it as weakness.'

z theater in izjevskTheater in the Russian town of Izhevsk has a Z banner. Underneath the slogan: 'fascists'

Meduza’s sources underscore that the Putin administration hasn’t figured out how to avoid such a scenario. However, the Kremlin’s proxies in the occupied territories are already making attempts to manage expectations. Meduza’s sources said this is evidenced by public statements from Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, and Ekaterina Gubareva, the deputy head of the collaborationist administration in Kherson, underscoring that the referendums will take place 'only after' the entire Donetsk region has been captured (making no mention of specific dates). 

Meduza’s sources also say that if the referendums are delayed, then it’s likely that Moscow’s spin doctors will have to dream up 'new slogans and elements of ideology' to underpin the annexation. As Meduza reported in early August, the referendums are currently set to take place under the slogan 'Together with Russia'. Collaborationist officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions are already making use of this tagline, as well as the slogan 'One People' (Odin Narod, in Russian) — which echoes President Vladimir Putin’s ahistorical claims about Russians and Ukrainians. 

kirijenko en denis poesjilin in donetsk mei 2022 persdienst poesjilinHead of DNR Denis Pushilin with Kremlin aide Sergey Kiriyenko (right) in Donetsk in May 2022 (picture press service Pushilin)

According to three sources close to the Kremlin, Putin is expected to make a final decision on the referendum date in the near future. One of Meduza’s sources added that Putin’s point man in the Donbas, First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, already has everything in place. 

'For Sergey Kiriyenko, it doesn’t really matter when the referendums take place. If they say hold them in September, they will — from a technical standpoint everything is ready. If it has to be postponed, then this isn’t Kiriyenko’s fault, it’s the military’s. This is his style: do everything possible in his own area to showcase his diligence and effectiveness.'

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s questions prior to publication. 

This article was published by Meduza.

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