Russia Defers ‘Referendums’ in Southern Ukraine for More Careful Preparation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 128

An elderly woman voting during the March 16, 2014 'referendum' in Crimea (Source: Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera)

Russia is proceeding apace to absorb the occupied territories in Ukraine’s Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv provinces, already transforming them into Russia’s own image.

Western powers have reacted to the prospect of Ukraine’s further amputation with a deafening silence. In a rare exception, the US White House issued a strongly worded protest on July 19, more than four months after Russia installed its “military-civil administrations” in these occupied territories, preparatory to their annexation (, July 19). Moscow’s intention to stage “referendums” in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia helped inspire The White House’s belated protest and sense of urgency, as the “referendums” seemed imminent at that moment. Yet, the statement omitted the occupation of Kharkiv province, where Russia, as of yet, does not plan to stage a “referendum.”

Direct annexation of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces to Russia (Crimea model) or indirect annexation as with the so-called “people’s republics” (Donbas model) would compel President Joe Biden’s White House against its will to support Ukraine more decisively and to abandon hopes of some accommodation with Russia. The White House’s current policy is to arm Ukraine enough to avoid further territorial losses and to “stay in the fight” but not to arm Kyiv enough to regain the territories lost since February 24, including Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan portrays the current situation as a strategic failure for “Putin” (i.e., Russia) and a relative success for Ukraine—namely its retention of Kyiv and other large cities and the effective functioning of the Ukrainian state. This situation could, in The White House’s view, lead to an armistice and negotiations over territories, subject of course to Kyiv’s own decision (, July 12; The Atlantic, July 25). This view may not be shared across the US executive branch and certainly not in Congress, but it does constrain the policy overall.

Arming Ukraine for a stalemate, instead of a counteroffensive, can be one way of concentrating Kyiv’s mind to “decide on its own” which Ukrainian territories to put on the table for negotiations with Russia. Some Western European leaders come even closer to favoring negotiations based on the current front lines cutting into Ukraine. This would leave the currently occupied territories of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv provinces in Russian hands long term, further advancing the process of Ukraine’s territorial dismemberment that Moscow launched in 2014.

In destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure and its national demography, as well as occupying more territories, “Putin” is not strategically losing but strategically winning against Ukraine. The pretense that Russia is losing seems an alibi for negotiations based on new facts on the ground, without sufficiently helping Ukraine reverse them.

An armistice along the current front lines would provide the ideal situation for Russian-staged “referendums” in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. This consideration may well explain Moscow’s decision to postpone voting beyond the initial target date, September 11. In truth, the postponement was fully predictable by mid-July 2022 (see EDM, July 21, 22). As things now stand, the Ukrainian army can disrupt referendums through local attacks or long-range strikes, whereas an armistice would eliminate that risk for Russia. This is what occupation officials allude to by declaring that safety is the first prerequisite to staging referendums (RIA Novosti, August 11).

Furthermore, the military-civil administrations have not yet fully entrenched themselves in the occupied territories at the levels of districts and towns (below the regional centers) and have not yet set up the “power vertical” that is indispensable to these sorts of referendums. The influx of carpetbaggers from Russia into these local administrations has not yet run its course (see EDM, July 28, Part One; Part Two). One-third of the Zaporizhzhia province’s territory, including the eponymous administrative center, remains free; and Moscow might await its full conquest before launching twin “referendums” in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

Meanwhile, Russia is determined to sustain the momentum toward these “referendums” and work through the occupation authorities to build the prerequisites. Referendum procedures and ballot questions have yet to be announced and probably have not been worked out in Moscow yet. On July 22 and 23, respectively, the military-civil administrations in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia “decreed” the creation of “electoral commissions,” with a view to conducting future referendums and elections. Both commissions’ members, however, are to be appointed through nomination and selection procedures (Interfax, July 22, 23). Moscow can either telescope or drag out these procedures, depending on the local or international situation.

Moscow is carefully setting the stage for these referendums through propaganda and facts on the ground. The Kremlin’s official designation of these territories, at home and internationally, is “liberated territories.” This usage implies that the Russian occupation is both just and non-negotiable.

During the month of July, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) deployed officers to set up “temporary directorates (upravleniya) of the Russian Federation’s MVD in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.” Their mission is to support the organization of local police units subordinated to the military-civil administrations. Russian MVD personnel directly participate in keeping public order on the streets, conducting investigations and searches and “combating extremist actions” (Interfax, July 28).

On July 15, the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia military-civil administrations issued “decrees” (ukazes) to punish “extremist activities” through forcible deportation. The decision, enforceable within 24 hours without appeal, is up to the military commandant (Russian senior military officer with discretionary authority on civil affairs). Extremist activities are defined as (inter alia) “impeding the work of the [military-civil] administration”; “slandering the Russian Federation’s bodies of power and its armed forces”; “conducting public meetings not authorized by the military-civil administrations”; and “publishing extremist texts” (Interfax, RIA Novosti, July 15).

Russia opened a few civil registry offices in these occupied regions on June 11. Some 30,000 applications for Russian citizenship have been registered in Zaporizhzhia region and more than 12,000 in Kherson region, according to the latest official report (TASS, August 15). These numbers look startlingly low, especially in light of the financial incentives accompanying the “passportization.” Russian civil registry offices also take applications for old-age pensions and related payments. Since July 6, they have also been offering one-time payments of 10,000 rubles to low-income applicants for Russian passportization, regardless of their age (Ukraiynska Pravda, July 19). Russian President Vladimir Putin had, by his May 25 decree, simplified the procedure for issuing Russian citizenship specifically for residents of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. The simplifications include exemption from the Russian passport fee.

The Russian MVD’s State Vehicle Inspection unit (Gosavtoinspektsiya) started the process of re-registering driver’s licenses and vehicle license plates in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in early August 2022. Holders of Russian citizenship are being issued Russian driver’s licenses and plate numbers outright. All others are being issued with temporary documents and plates, without any Ukrainian markings. Once this temporary authorization expires, local motorists will probably be pressured to accept Russian citizenship for Russian documents and plates. To expedite the re-registration, Gosavtoinspektsiya requires neither a re-registration tax nor evidence of a vehicle insurance policy (Interfax, August 8, 9).

The occupation’s brutal nature is well documented by now, including by a Human Rights Watch report on Russian war crimes in Ukraine (Human Rights Watch, July 22). The report details, inter alia, the unlawful detention and repression of Ukrainian civil servants, elected local officials, journalists and civic associations in the occupied regions.

Moscow may, at some point, announce the holding of “referendums” on short notice, perhaps one or two weeks in advance, to minimize the risk of a Ukrainian military response. If Western powers tolerate such a farcical spectacle here (as they have with previous “referendums,” by and large), Russia can attempt to follow up in the remaining half of Novorossiya next time. If Russia moves, say, on Dnipro or Kryvyi Rih, some will likely suggest that the line could be drawn still farther westward across Ukraine.