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Change of plans Kremlin-orchestrated ‘referendums’ on Donbas ‘republics’ joining Russia postponed until May
As Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine enters its third month, the Russian Defense Ministry has officially declared that its main aim has shifted to taking “full control” of the Donbas and southern Ukraine. According to Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin, establishing “full control” will involve orchestrating pseudo-referendums on the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” joining the Russian Federation — and on Russian-occupied Kherson declaring independence from Ukraine. However, these “referendums” have already been postponed until May, allegedly due Russia’s military failures in Ukraine.
According to three Meduza sources close to Putin’s administration, the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (the DNR and LNR) may be set to hold Kremlin-engineered referendums on joining the Russian Federation in mid-May. Two of these people even gave specific dates for the planned “votes” — May 14 and 15, 2022.
Russia recognized the DNR and LNR as independent states just days before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In doing so, Moscow acknowledged their territorial claims to the entirety of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions — implying that Russia would be seeking to annex the “republics” within these boundaries (despite the fact that Kyiv still controls many large settlements in the Donbas).
According to Meduza’s sources, another pseudo-referendum may also be held on these same dates in Ukraine’s Kherson region, which Russian forces have partially occupied. Allegedly, the “vote” would be on the issue of the occupied region declaring independence from Ukraine and proclaiming itself the “Kherson People’s Republic” (modeled on those in the Donbas). Meduza’s sources also believe that Russia could move to annex the region at a later date.
At the same time, Meduza’s sources noted that these “referendums” were initially set for late April, but were postponed several times due to the Russian army’s failures at the front. As such, they said, the dates could very well be pushed again for the same reason.
Notably, Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin underscored that officials in Putin’s administration don’t think Russia should annex these “depressed regions” of Ukraine. Nevertheless, this is the personal desire of the “top leadership” — that is, of Putin himself.
The DNR and LNR authorities did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries. In March, DNR leader Denis Pushilin and LNR leader Leonid Pasechnik mentioned plans to hold referendums on joining Russia — but only after Donetsk and Luhansk establish control over their “constitutional borders.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions either.
Swapping Kozak for Kiriyenko
Russia’s plans for “status referendums” in the D/LNR coincide with the Kremlin changing its point man for the Donbas. As reported by RBC, Putin’s domestic policy czar Sergey Kiriyenko will now be handling DNR and LNR policy, as well. Until recently, issues related to the self-proclaimed republics were under the purview of Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Dmitry Kozak (who inherited the portfolio from former presidential aide Vladislav Surkov).
Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin confirmed that Kiriyenko will be handling Moscow’s Donbas policy, specifying that he will work in tandem with Andrey Yarin — the head of the Putin administration’s domestic policy department, who reportedly has close ties to the FSB. However, contrary to RBC’s report, Meduza’s sources said that Putin’s administration has yet to create a dedicated “department” for Donbas affairs.
Meduza sources also noted that the transfer of the Kremlin’s Donbas policy from Kozak’s department to Sergey Kiriyenko was not accidental. According to one source close to Putin’s administration, “Kozak has a position [deputy chief of staff], but he no longer has authority.” What’s more, other sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that they believe Kozak is “out of favor” with Putin, because of Russia’s lack of success in the war on Ukraine.
As previously mentioned, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s questions. Meduza was unable to reach Dmitry Kozak for comment.
‘Political officers’ wanted
According to Meduza’s sources, preparations for the “referendums” in the DNR, LNR, and Kherson region will be handled by political strategists; Andrey Yarin and the FSB have been put in charge of hiring them. The FSB Public Relations Center did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries.
These same political strategists will act as “political officers” (one of Meduza’s sources described the role using the Soviet-era term politruk) in the “military-civilian administrations” that are set to be installed in Ukrainian cities occupied by the Russian army.
However, the effort to recruit political strategists destined for the DNR and LNR hasn’t been going very well, Meduza’s sources said. Allegedly, this is because the Kremlin is still offering the usual “pre-war rate” for working in the Donbas — between 200,000 and 300,000 rubles (roughly $2,700–$4,000) per month.
“[The political officers] are needed in order to maintain power in the occupied territories. So the population doesn’t shoot them in the back,” one of Meduza’s sources explained. “Right now, in many places, there are actually Ukrainian administrations that influence people’s beliefs. This needs to be countered.”
Translation by Eilish Hart
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