With minimal preparation, armed soldiers standing guard and the booms of war often audible in the distance, so-called referendums got under way on Friday in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops.
Residents in Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions were told to vote on proposals for the four areas to declare independence and then join Russia.
The polls have been widely condemned in Kyiv and the west as illegitimate, and appear to be a thin attempt to provide cover for the illegal annexation of the regions by Moscow. They were hastily organized after being announced earlier this week, and are due to run until Tuesday.
President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia plans to claim the territories after the voting formalities are over, and he threatened on Wednesday that Moscow would be prepared to defend its gains using all available means, including nuclear weapons.
In Kyiv, officials said the votes would have no effect on the situation on the ground or the Ukrainian army’s ongoing counteroffensive.
“There is no referendum. There is a propaganda exercise which is being called a referendum,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in an interview. “It means nothing. It will be a few staged things where there will be Russian television cameras.”
The Guardian spoke to several people in the occupied city of Kherson via secure messaging apps on Thursday and Friday, who all reported a lack of activity on the ground.
“I don’t know anyone who is planning to go this weekend and vote. I am against annexation, but why even bother voting? Everything is already decided for us – I am sure they will count the votes the way it pleases them. It is all pointless,” said Svitlana, who described herself as a largely apolitical stay-at-home mother.
The speed with which the vote was organized seems to have meant that the occupation authorities have not had time to launch a “get out the vote” campaign or even put pressure on people to vote.
“I’ve not seen any campaigning, or billboards, I don’t have any information about where people are supposed to vote. There is a rumor that they will go door to door, but I don’t know,” said another person from Kherson, who asked to remain anonymous, when reached on Friday morning.
He described an increasingly tense atmosphere in recent weeks in the city, especially since the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the north-east Kharkiv region. Others described similar feelings.
“It is getting harder to get in touch with people in the city. There are now constant house searches, phones are checked. I am often too scared to talk about politics to my friends now, afraid to get them into trouble,” said Olena, a Kherson resident who left the city two weeks ago.
In interviews for Russian media outlets, the Russia-appointed deputy governor of occupied Kherson region claimed there were 198 polling booths opened in the region. “Our future is part of one, big and united country,” said Kirill Stremousov. Video from Donetsk purportedly showed “mobile voting commissions” going house to house asking for people to come to the courtyard and vote, attracting the electorate with loudspeakers.
Stremousov falsely claimed the vote met all international electoral standards.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, listed a number of reasons why the referendums would have no legal force: they do not meet international standards, run contrary to Ukrainian law, the areas are not secure, there will be no independent observers and much of the population has fled.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum that was also criticized as illegitimate, and has controlled part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014 and run them as proxy “people’s republics”.
There have been rumors the Kremlin was planning votes in eastern Ukraine since the spring, but Moscow hoped to gain full control of the four regions before ordering the referendum. When Ukraine began its counteroffensive earlier this month, the plans were postponed indefinitely.
“A couple of weeks ago we saw all the consultants who came in from Russia to organize this referendum fly home, and it seemed they were postponing it,” said an intelligence source in Kyiv.
“We think they realized with the counteroffensive that the military situation was not conducive to doing this, but then after thinking for a bit decided that doing it badly is better than not at all.”
The Ukrainian recapture of territory where the Russians had promised local people they were there “for ever” has sent shockwaves through the other occupied areas, and led many to recalibrate decisions on collaboration, say Ukrainian officials.
Deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk claimed she had heard intercepted phone calls from the occupied areas of people trying to get out of previous agreements to cooperate with the Russians, after being spooked by the success of the counteroffensive.
“People were en masse trying to get out of taking part in the organization of this referendum. I heard these conversations, they were thinking about how to run away, how to write a resignation letter,” she said.
Hundreds of thousands of people have left the occupied areas since the invasion, some for Russia and others for Ukraine-controlled territory or western Europe.
As the occupation has gone on, the Russians have increasingly cracked down on dissent among those who remain. In the early days there were mass pro-Ukraine rallies in Kherson and other occupied cities, but these were gradually stamped out. In recent weeks there have been increased reports of door-to-door searches and repression.
“All those who had the chance have left, and those who had to stay behind for different reasons are too scared to protest. It is unlikely that we will see protests like the ones I attended at the beginning of the war. It is just not safe. The repressions have intensified,” said Anzhela Hladka, an advertising executive from Kherson who left the city in April and is now in the Netherlands.
“Last week, the wife of a friend called to say that the occupiers barged into their home and took him away. He was against the Russians but he wasn’t part of the resistance. He was let go the next day but he hasn’t been in touch since. I hear these stories all the time,” she said.
In Kyiv, Vereshchuk linked the referendums to Russia’s recent decision to mobilize reserves, and called it a “pathetic attempt” by Putin to provide justification to the Russian people for the ongoing invasion.
“It’s for the internal audience to explain why there have been so many losses. I do not think your average Russian Ivan from Ivanovo really understands why his son died somewhere in a village in Kherson region, ”she said.
There is no doubt that Russia will proclaim the referendums an overwhelming success, but what happens next is harder to predict. Ukrainian officials say they will ignore any Russian claim to the territory, while western leaders are hoping Putin’s threats of nuclear strikes are a desperate bluff.
Dmitry Medvedev, formerly Russian president and now deputy chair of the security council, said directly in a post on Telegram on Thursday that nuclear weapons could be used if the newly annexed territories were threatened. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the west,” he wrote.