Earlier this month, Ukrainian intelligence warned that the Russian occupation administration was preparing a series of “pseudo-referendums” in regions occupied by Russian forces, including Kherson and Mykolayiv.
Over the last week, local residents in the besieged parts of Ukraine have grown increasingly concerned about their fate.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that residents are growing worried that Russia is planning to stage a “sham” referendum designed to convert the region into a pro-Kremlin “people’s republic.”
One local teacher told the news outlet that soldiers are walking around and patrolling the area silently, and are not shooting people in the streets.
“They are trying to give the impression that they come in peace to liberate us from something,” the teacher said.
Others told journalists that there is “no panic” and that there is a “very small minority of people” who are happy that the area is now under Russian control.
“But mostly, nobody wants Kherson to become a part of Russia,” one 63-year-old resident said.
If the claims are true, the staging of a referendum in eastern Ukraine this year may play out just the same as it did in 2014, when a large number of pro-Kyiv residents boycotted the vote.
Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhaiev sounded the alarms over a possible referendum this week, saying on Ukrainian television that any such vote would be a violation of Ukrainian law. Russian forces acting on the results of a referendum held in the region would also be a violation of provisions in the Ukrainian constitution that require the entire population to be asked in a referendum before changes to the nation’s borders and territorial control are made.
Zelenskyy Says Referendums A Red Line
An official statement published by the Ukrainian president’s office confirmed his position on referendums held by Russia in Ukraine.
“President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasizes that in the event of any pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories they will not be recognized by Ukraine and the world and will complicate possible negotiations between Ukraine and Russia,” the statement reads.
Zelenskyy said during a statement after meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Kyiv this week that it will “not be possible” to annex any part of Ukraine’s territory by force.
The Ukrainian president said that any referendum held by the Russians would compromise upcoming negotiations between the two countries.
“It seems to me that this is a complication of any negotiations,” he added.
If Russia goes ahead with the referendums rumored to be planned in Donbas, it could be the end of peace talks between the two countries. Given the intensity of the fighting in Ukraine, which didn’t occur in 2014, Western nations may be forced to examine what further measures can be taken to respond to Russia if Donetsk and Luhansk are annexed.
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.