‘People there are very concerned’ The most likely scenarios for the Kremlin’s annexation ‘referendums’
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Sam Breazeale.
For more than six months, Kremlin officials have been waiting for the right moment to annex more of Ukraine’s territory. Early in the war, sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the Russian authorities hoped to conduct “referendums” on joining Russia in occupied Ukraine in May. When Russia’s progress in the war slowed, the plan shifted to July, then to September. Throughout August, the authorities seemed to change their plans almost weekly; the crux of their problem is that while Russia’s leaders feel growing political pressure to declare control over the occupied regions, they don’t actually control all of the land they want to annex. Meduza gives a rundown of the likeliest possibilities for the pseudo-referendums as of early September.
All at once or two at a time
“I know how people are feeling, I've seen the surveys, and I know that the results of the upcoming referendum will be unequivocal [in favor of joining Russia],” said Sergey Kiriyenko, Vladimir Putin’s first deputy chief of staff, in an address to teachers on August 27. He had just returned from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” where he visited a drone pilot training center.
But according to three sources close to the Kremlin, Kiriyenko’s trip had another purpose, too: he was monitoring preparations for Russia’s planned “referendums” on the regions' incorporation into the Russian Federation. As Meduza has previously reported, soon after Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, Kiriyenko became the Kremlin’s unofficial point man in the Donbas territories. In recent months, he’s also taken responsibility for planning "referendums" in the occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
“He needed to make sure that everything is ready if it turns out that they [the referendums] need to be held sooner rather than later,” a source told Meduza.
In the same August 27 address, Kiriyenko claimed to have data indicating that 91-92 percent of residents in the self-proclaimed Donbas republics and 75-77 percent of residents in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions support Russian annexation.
It’s unclear where he was getting this information; there are no reliable statistics on public opinion in the occupied areas. However, the Kremlin has conducted classified surveys in the territories — and their results suggested a level of popular support for joining Russia that's far lower than the Kremlin likely hoped. In early August, for example, Kremlin surveys found that only 30 percent of residents in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions wanted their homes to become part of Russia. About the same number said they wanted to remain a part of Ukraine. The rest of the respondents said it was “difficult to answer.”
One of Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin noted that the results of these surveys “might not contradict” Kiriyenko’s claims; according to the source, Kiriyenko was talking about the percentage of people with firm plans to vote in the referendum, not the percentage of the entire population, who support annexation.
Whatever the case, the Kremlin still hasn't chosen an official date.
As Meduza reported earlier, the Russian authorities previously wanted to conduct referendums in all of the occupied territories (including the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”) on September 11. That's Russia's "single voting day," when voters throughout Russia's regions will go to the polls to elect governors and local representatives. In late August, the investigative outlet Verstka reported that September 14 is also a possibility.
Two sources close to the Putin administration confirmed that Kremlin officials are still considering September 14. But according to Meduza's estimates, Russia and the “DNR” currently control only 60 percent of the Donetsk region — and the odds of their troops occupying the rest of the territory by mid-September are slim to none.
For that reason, the Kremlin is now considering two main options for its planned referendums:
In the initial months of the invasion, the Kremlin planned on holding the votes in May 2022, but after Russia got bogged down in the war, they were postponed to September. In early August, Meduza reported that the Putin administration was considering pushing the votes back to an even later date.
Two sources close to the administration told Meduza that the Kremlin’s domestic policy team has already begun finalizing its list of electoral commission members for the referendums. In the occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, according to Meduza’s sources, “almost everything is ready.” At the same time, a Kremlin source noted that “the regions’ pro-Russian residents are worried” (especially in light of Ukraine’s attempts to launch a counteroffensive on Kherson) and want the referendums to take place as soon as possible.
“In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, people are very concerned. What if Russia leaves them, Ukraine returns, and they’re subjected to repressions for collaborating with the Russian authorities?” said another source. “We need to show them that that won’t happen.”
Another source claimed that residents in the self-proclaimed Donbas republics are also calling for the referendums to be held as soon as possible, but for a different reason: “Residents and officials think that after the Russian annexation, the intensity of the shelling in civilian areas will die down a little, because Ukraine won’t risk firing on territory that Russia considers its own.” It’s not clear what this belief is based on; Crimea, where Russia conducted a “referendum” on annexation in 2014, has come under regular fire in recent weeks.
In addition, residents of the Donbas “people’s republics” are hoping that Russian annexation will end mobilization in the region. A political strategist who conducted surveys in the Donbas in August 2022 summed up the feelings of many of the area’s residents like this: “'Mobilization is ongoing here — there are no men around. But Russia doesn't have anything like that. So let’s just go ahead and hold the referendums so things here will be like they are in Russia.”
Going through the campaign motions
Unlike in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, where pro-annexation signs went up back in July, the “DNR” and “LNR” are almost completely free of campaign materials. According to Meduza’s sources, campaigning won’t begin in the Donbas until a referendum date is confirmed.
“People in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia still need to be convinced about Russia. But in the DNR and LNR, that’s not necessary: Ukraine hasn’t been there for a long time, so all they’ll need is the slogan ‘Together with Russia,’” said one of Meduza’s sources.
Three sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the referendum campaign will be managed by the Kremlin’s favorite PR agency, IMA-Consulting. According to the investigative outlet Proekt, IMA-Consulting may have ties to presidential administration deputy head and Kremlin media curator Alexey Gromov, a connection three sources close to the Kremlin confirmed to Meduza.
“If all of the elections [that IMA-Consulting have taken part in] in the last few years had truly been competitive, the candidates managed by IMA would have had a difficult time. But as things stand, what does it matter which political strategists are involved?” said a strategist who’s worked with the company. He said that IMA often recruits “people off the street” rather than experienced specialists, and that as far as he knows, the firm isn't changing its approach for the annexation campaigns. IMA-Consulting General Director Vartan Sarkisov declined to comment.
On August 31, the investigative outlet The Insider published a presentation it referred to as a “government project.” According to the document, the referendum in the “DNR” was originally slated to be held in June, though it didn’t provide exact dates. It also included proposed campaign materials to convince voters to support annexation. Among other things, the proposal included the slogans “Our choice is Russia,” “My home is Russia,” and “The Donbas chooses peace.”
In addition, the document indicated that responsibility for overseeing electoral commissions in the “DNR’s” various voting districts will fall to the heads of the electoral commissions in the Russian regions serving as “patrons” for the various districts of the self-proclaimed republics. One source close to the Putin administration confirmed the claim, saying the presentation was likely prepared for Russia’s Central Election Commission.
According to one of Meduza’s sources in the Putin administration, on referendum day, occupation officials plan to intentionally open too few polling places to serve the population. That will ensure long lines at the available precincts, “creating the impression of very high turnout.” According to the source, this will be especially useful for TV news reports.