By Evan Robinson
Last month, four regions of Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya) “voted” to formally separate from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. At first glance, this may appear as the proper democratic process required to resolve territorial disputes internationally. After all, referendums on territorial legitimacy happen all the time–––think Catalonia, Scotland, Quebec, etc. These elections, however, are far from legitimate and have been described by most international actors as “sham elections.” As Putin’s war in Ukraine has gone on, the Russian President has looked for any opportunity to place some legitimacy in the war. We have seen this demonstrated through his raids of Kyiv in response to the Ukrainian destruction of the Crimean Bridge and the US Intelligence Report stating Ukraine had their hand in the murder of the daughter of a close Kremlin ally. Although there are various factors behind why precisely these elections were held, the simple answer comes down to disinformation. Putin and other senior Russian officials are looking to disrupt the legitimacy of Ukraine, especially in regions with plenty of ethnic Russian citizens, by holding these “elections,” trying to create the perception the regions are “legitimately” joining Russia.
The four regions that voted to join Russia have all had a complicated history with Ukraine and have been at the centre of the war that has gone on since 2014. Two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, have been de facto governed by pro-Russian separatists since 2014 and held similarly discredited referendums then. Since these regions of Ukraine are populated mainly by ethnic Russians and border Russia to the east, there is naturally more support for Russia than in most regions of Ukraine. Despite this, how the referendum and, subsequently, the war has been conducted is unequivocally wrong. As stated, many other global regions have held separatist tendencies and have formed legitimate means to hold votes on formally separating from a nation-state. In the case of Donetsk and Luhansk, the militia groups who took de facto power in 2014 did not develop acceptable and proper elections, and these ensuing elections are no different. As we see from the officially released election data, the results of this past election are likely all fabricated. According to the Russian Central Election Commission, over 99% of voters in Luhansk supported the move to join Russia. In Donetsk, it was similarly over 98%.https://english.almayadeen.net/news/politics/lpr-dpr-kherson-and-zaporozhye-vote-for-reunification-with-r Following the results, only one state, North Korea, accepted them as legitimate and nearly all developed nations have condemned them in the most potent form. Amnesty International called the elections “a ruse for Russia to illegally annex occupied Ukrainian territory” and a “profound disregard for international law and the rights of people in the territories under its occupation.” Russia/Ukraine: So-called referenda in the occupied territories are in blatant breach of international law
The elections themselves represent a central theme to this entire war, and one which this think-tank is primarily concerned with–––disinformation. Putin is waging a war which is unprovoked, inhumane, and illegal. On top of that, nearly every international organization, human rights group, and state actors acknowledge Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and its right to exist. These simple facts show most citizens of the world who is right and wrong in this war. Therefore, the only way for President Putin to defend and retain support for his regime and war is through false information. Regarding the referendums specifically, by using one of the most respected and desired systems of governance internationally, democracy, to try and place legitimacy behind his invasion, Putin hopes that the invasion is all seen as legitimate. Rhetoric such as, “if the people, not Putin, choose for the regions to join Russia, then it is legitimate–––he did not illegally invade these regions, they decided to join Russia” is typical but merely represents the mirage of facts and the use of a sacred institution like democracy to spread disinformation. Some experts believe elections like this will not stop here. Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, was reportedly scheduled to have a sham referendum in November. However, due to the recent Ukrainian resistance in the east, Russia has no tactical opportunity to hold such elections. Kremlin proxies stage referendums as Russia aims to seize Ukraine land – The Washington Post
In closing, we must be aware of tactics like elections to try and place legitimacy into this war. Ukraine is a sovereign nation with agreed-upon borders. Any attempt to change these must be agreed to in the proper channels and conducted properly. As we have expressed in past blogs, Putin is losing support at home, facing unexpected resistance from Ukraine, and is being internationally labelled as a pariah state. He is desperate and is looking for any opportunity to control Ukraine. As we know, these elections merely change nothing. Ukraine will still fight, and the world will continue to support the resistance and condemn any act Russia takes to try and violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to exist.
Al Mayadeen English. “LPR, DPR, Kherson and Zaporozhye vote for reunification with Russia.” Al Mayadeen English, 28 September 2022, https://english.almayadeen.net/news/politics/lpr-dpr-kherson-and-zaporozhye-vote-for-reunification-with-r. Accessed 22 October 2022.
Amnesty International. “Russia/Ukraine: So-called referenda in the occupied territories are in blatant breach of international law.” Amnesty International, 23 September 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/09/russia-ukraine-so-called-referenda-in-the-occupied-territories-are-in-blatant-breach-of-international-law/. Accessed 22 October 2022.
Dallison, Paul. “Separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas to hold votes on joining Russia.” POLITICO, 20 September 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/separatists-in-ukraine-luhansk-region-to-hold-referendum-on-joining-russia/. Accessed 22 October 2022.
Khurshudyan, Isabelle, et al. “Kremlin proxies stage referendums as Russia aims to seize Ukrainian land.” The Washington Post, 23 September 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/23/russia-referendum-occupied-ukraine-annexation/. Accessed 22 October 2022.
TASS-Russian News Agency. “Based on 100% of protocols 93.11% of residents back Zaporozhye Region’s joining Russia.” TASS, 27 September 2022, https://tass.com/world/1514323. Accessed 22 October 2022.