‘A ritual with a known outcome’ Behind the scenes of the Kremlin’s sham 'referendums'
On September 23, just two days after Vladimir Putin’s mobilization announcement, Russia began staging the four-day “referendums” that it intends to use as a step towards annexing Ukraine’s occupied territories. Meduza spoke to a number of sources close to the Putin administration, the Moscow government, and the Kremlin about the “results” they plan to announce, the logistics of the whole production, and what they hope to achieve. According to one source, the Russian authorities have already given up hope that the “votes” will gin up domestic support for the war; they know people are too concerned about mobilization to care.
September 23 saw the start of the “referendums on joining the Russian Federation” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as well as in Ukraine’s occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia territories. The “votes” are scheduled to continue until September 27.
As Meduza has previously reported, the “referendums” were postponed multiple times due to Russia’s defeats on the battlefield, and in early September, after Ukrainian forces’ successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, the Kremlin suspended its “referendum” plans indefinitely. Just days later, however, collaborationist officials from the occupied territories began publicly calling for the “votes” to be held immediately.
According to Meduza’s sources, the decision to charge forward with the “referendums” was made after high-ranking security officials in favor of further escalation successfully convinced Vladimir Putin that Russia needed to conduct the “votes” in the occupied territories and announce mobilization at home as soon as possible.
Additionally, two sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the Kremlin’s domestic policy bloc, including First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, was practically barred from taking part in “referendum” preparations on the ground in Ukraine. According to the source, responsibility for the “votes” has gone to the local occupation administrations and intelligence services in the occupied territories: “This isn’t an electoral procedure — it’s a mobilization one,” said the source.
“Russian officials who traveled to the Donbas are participating, of course, as are political strategists hired by the [Russian] presidential administration, but their work has been limited. But the numbers they need will still be reported [as official results],” said one of the sources.
Also involved in preparations for the “referendums” was the Moscow city administration’s political bloc, according to a source close to the leadership of the ruling United Russia party and a source close to the Putin administration. Initially, it appeared as though the administration had been enlisted to help organize electronic voting on the occupied territories, but the Kremlin ultimately decided not to let people vote that way. The Moscow officials ended up working as “consultants” to the “referendum” organizers at local electoral commissions.
According to one source close to the Kremlin, Moscow officials are working on the ground in Donbas, not just as remote advisors. The “votes” in the “DNR” have been organized by Moscow Department of Territorial Authorities deputy head Yulia Maryasova, who also worked with political consultants in the runup to Moscow’s 2021 State Duma elections and its 2022 municipal deputy elections. Another source close to the city’s leadership, however, denied that claim, saying, “everyone’s running around like chickens with their heads cut off, but none of our people are actually going there — they’re helping remotely.” The Moscow government did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
In general, according to Meduza’s sources, the “referendums” in Ukraine’s occupied territories will look a lot like the ones Russia conducted before annexing Crimea in 2014. On the first day of “voting,” occupation authorities will open a small number of polling stations and “mobilize” pro-annexation residents there. This, the sources said, will allow Russia’s propaganda outlets to disseminate photos of long lines of people waiting to vote, suggesting a high turnout. These kinds of images have already appeared in the Russian state media.
Two sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the Russian authorities plan to “ensure” that the referendums yield the following results:
- In the “DNR” and “LNR”: about 90 percent of voters supporting annexation, with a turnout of about 90 percent
- In the occupied territories of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions: about 90 percent of voters supporting annexation, with a turnout of about 80 percent
On September 23, the government-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) published "survey results" showing that 87 percent of respondents from the “DNR” and “LNR” planned to take part in the “referendums,” with 97 percent planning to vote for Russian annexation. In the Kherson region, according to VTsIOM, 69 percent of respondents said they plan to go to the polls, while 89 percent said they plan to vote for Russian annexation. In the Zaporizhzhia region, 80 percent of respondents purportedly plan to vote in the “referendum,” with 87 percent planning to support annexation.
A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the "survey results” were released as part of an effort to prepare Russian society for the official results of the “referendums.”
Two sources close to the Kremlin referred to the “referendums” as “a ritual with a known outcome,” adding that the Putin administration is already planning to hold “elections” for local government offices in the occupied territories. The sources said that Russian authorities aren’t anticipating any protests from local residents in the occupied territories, but that they haven’t ruled out that Ukrainian forces might continue their counteroffensive.
One of the sources also said that the Kremlin isn’t counting on the annexation increasing domestic support for the Russian authorities: “Most people don’t give a fuck about the Donbas. People are worried about mobilization right now.”