‘Together with Russia’ Kremlin officials push ahead with ‘referendums’ despite classified polls showing lack of support in captured Ukrainian territories
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Abridged translation by Eilish Hart
Kremlin officials still hope to stage referendums in captured regions of Ukraine this fall, in the hopes of Russia absorbing the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (the DNR and LNR), as well as the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
As Meduza reported previously, the Putin administration wanted to time these “referendums” to coincide with Russia’s own regional elections, scheduled for September 11. However, statements from Russian occupation authorities in captured regions of Ukraine have offered only vague time frames like “early autumn” or “the first ten days of September.”
Three sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that September 11 remains a “tentative date” — but it’s not set in stone. In all likelihood, they explained, Russian forces won’t be able to completely occupy the Donetsk region by then. Moscow recognizes the entire region as the territory of the “DNR.” But by Meduza’s estimates, Russia and its proxies only control about 60 percent of the region.
That said, Kremlin officials have no doubt that Russian forces will be able to seize the remaining 40 percent sooner or later. As such, the Putin administration sees staging referendums after this has been achieved as its main (and most realistic) option. One of Meduza’s sources asserted that this would allow for “general unity and a celebration.” (Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s questions.)
According to another source, however, Russian troops may soon lose control of Kherson. Kyiv intends to fully recapture the southern region and Ukrainian forces have already shelled the Antonovsky Bridge — the main crossing point over the Dnipro River used to supply Russian troops in Kherson.
Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin emphasized that if the counteroffensive intensifies, the planned referendums may have to be moved up — regardless of whether Russia has taken full control of the Donetsk region. In other words, Russia may move to annex only part of the “DNR.”
“The Kherson region was more or less quickly occupied [in early March] and occupied with little bloodshed,” one source explained. “After the referendums, it will be Russian territory and it will be defended as Russian territory.”
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‘A New Russia’
According to Meduza’s sources, the referendums are set to take place under the slogan “Together with Russia.” Occupation authorities are already making use of this tagline. In early July, collaborationist officials in the Zaporizhzhia region announced the formation of an “integration movement” called “We are Together with Russia.” And on July 30, a “Together with Russia” Forum took place in occupied Kherson.
Meduza’s sources close to the Putin administration explained that there was another slogan in the running: “A New Russia” (Novaya Rossiya, in Russian). The idea behind it was to signal to local residents that after the referendums, Russia “will gain a new quality as a state, become stronger, [and] that the people in these territories will help with this.”
However, according to one source, President Vladimir Putin and other members of Russia’s Security Council didn’t like the idea. In their view, Russia is “returning its own, not adding something new.”
Consequently, according to sources close to the Kremlin, the referendums will not have a “clear ideological component.” Instead, emphasis will be placed on the claim that the inhabitants of the occupied territories will be able to live better “in Russia” than in Ukraine.
As Meduza reported previously, preparations for the referendums are being handled by the presidential directorate for State Council affairs — a branch of Putin’s Executive Office under the leadership of Alexander Kharichev, a close associate of the Kremlin’s Donbas point man Sergey Kiriyenko.
According to Meduza’s sources, Sergey Tolmachev, the deputy governor of Sevastopol, has been tapped to play the role of chief political strategist and referendum coordinator. Tolmachev, who hails from Krasnoyarsk, actively posts updates on Telegram about Russia’s activities in captured regions of Ukraine. He did not respond to Meduza’s questions.
Tolmachev’s past experience as a political strategist includes, for example, working on the 2018 gubernatorial race in Khakassia. According to Meduza’s sources, he actively used “dark PR” in an attempt to prevent Communist Party candidate Valentin Konovalov from winning the race. Konovalov won the election anyway.
“[Tolmachev has] another strong suit — administrative mobilization. Why somehow try to win over and convince people if you can drive them to the polling stations by bus?” one of Tolmachev’s acquaintances told Meduza.
Tolmachev will have help from other personnel parachuted in from Russia (Meduza reported on this in detail back in June). According to Meduza’s sources, Russian civil servants and spin doctors involved in orchestrating the referendums are being paid a tidy sum of money. For example, one Russian civil servant working in the policy bloc of one of the Donbas “people’s republics” is making more than 2 million rubles ($33,000) a month. Salaries for political strategists start at 1 million rubles ($16,500). However, according to one source, only “the most desperate” people are taking these jobs: “Or those who want to demonstrate their loyalty in order to have lucrative contracts later. Many agree, but family [members] talk them out of it.”
A ‘real’ referendum
Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that so far, the efforts of Russia’s propagandists and political spin doctors have yet to produce the desired results.
Two sources close to the Putin administration said that classified studies conducted in the occupied regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in mid-June showed that only 30 percent of survey respondents supported accession to Russia. Another 30 percent wanted these regions to remain part of Ukraine and the rest “had difficulty answering.” (Due to Russia’s ongoing occupation of these regions, there is no reliable public opinion data.)
“For a real referendum such support, of course, is not enough,” underscored a source familiar with the classified polling results.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin has no doubt that despite the clear lack of public support, the referendums “will go as needed.” According to one source, due to the “special circumstances” (read: war) a limited number of polling stations will be opened during the referendum; pro-Russian residents will be solicited to visit them, and this will provide photo-ops for Kremlin propagandists.
Officials in the Putin administration are also convinced that those who want these regions to remain part of Ukraine will not come out to vote in a referendum orchestrated by Russia on territory captured by its troops.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart