In the invaded territories of Ukraine, the occupiers began to prepare pseudo-referendums. In the Kremlin's vision, it should create "legal grounds" for the inclusion of these territories into Russia. After the vote simulation, Russia will declare that it will not give away "their" territories, and will blackmail Ukraine and the world with nuclear weapons. The civilized world faces two main scenarios: either, the 2014 Crimea scenario, such as to weakly react to the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories, or to make sure the price of implementing these plans is unaffordable for Kremlin. The fate of Ukrainians in the occupied territories, Ukraine as an independent state, stability and peace in Europe, and the preservation of the system of international relations in general will be contingent on the option selected by the West. There is little time left for decisive action.

OPORA explains:

  • How Russia prepares pseudo-referendums in the invaded territories;
  • What resources and opportunities the occupiers have to implement their illegal plans;
  • What are the consequences for Ukraine and global security if Russia succeeds and the world does not react seriously enough;
  • How to counter Russian plans at the level of sanctions and military assistance of Ukraine;
  • How Ukrainians should act in the occupied territories if pseudo-referendums do take place.

Spoiler: The results of pseudo-referendums will be null and void, no one will recognize them. However, their conduct poses a new level of threats to the Ukrainian state, its citizens, and the global security system. The war against Ukraine resulting from the nuclear blackmail may reach a new level, and the West will pass another examination for determination and ability to increase pressure on the aggressor. Russia systematically builds their presence in the occupied territories, creating the prerequisites for their illegal integration. They destroy the Ukrainian language and culture and russify Ukrainian citizens. Residents of the invaded areas are getting increasingly more vulnerable, and after the pseudo-referendums they will face a new threat of forced mobilization.

The only efficient way to counter Russian plans is to strengthen military assistance to Ukraine necessary for the liberation of the occupied territories, to hold back the aggressor with arms, and to significantly increase sanctions pressure on Russia. The Crimean precedent should not be allowed because Russia does not limit their appetites for Ukraine and may claim the territory of other states. Passive attitude and bargaining with the aggressor would be a fatal mistake.

Crimean story: how the Russian strategy of annexation was forged

It is now obvious that Russia has been preparing to invade Ukraine and destroy our statehood for a long time. The first "special operation" was the occupation of Crimea; now the Russians are trying to replicate the Crimean experience in parts of Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which they have invaded. However, whereas in 2014, Russia concealed aggression by imitating "popular initiatives," now they act openly. Once again, as in 2014, they plan to make the world face the illegal annexation and hope not to receive any strong response, the same as when international institutions failed to respond efficiently to violations of international law. Furthermore, Russia's participation in the United Nations Security Council contributed to their immunity. Will international organizations and the civilized world now please Russia's expectations?

OPORA analyzed the course of the illegal annexation of Crimea, which experience helps to understand the Kremlin's plans and the threat of the Russian game of pseudo-referendums.

Timeline of the Crimean tragedy:

  • "Approval" of the Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea of March 6, 2014 № 1702-6/14 "On the All-Crimean Referendum" (there is no reliable evidence of what happened in the Crimean Parliament).
  • Acting President, Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, signed the Decree of March, 7, 2014 № 261/2014, which suspended the Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea of March, 6, 2014 № 1702-6/14 "On the All-Crimean Referendum" as non-compliant with the Constitution and laws of Ukraine.
  • By the decision of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine dated March, 14, 2014 No. 2-rp/2014, this resolution was found to be non-compliant with the Constitution of Ukraine (unconstitutional).
  • The Constitutional Court of Russia considered "a case on the verification of the constitutionality of an international treaty that has not entered into force between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Crimea on the admission of the Republic of Crimea to the Russian Federation and the formation of new entities within the Russian Federation" and adopted a Resolution dated March, 19, 2014 No. 6-P, by which it recognized this agreement as compliant with the Constitution of Russia, thus recognizing the international legal capacity of the administrative-territorial unit of Ukraine.
  • The decision of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine "On Termination of the Memorandum on the Development of Cooperation Between the Constitutional Court of Ukraine and the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation" dated April, 17, 2014 No. 10-r/2014 terminated this Memorandum due to the fact that the Constitutional Court of Russia, by adopting the Resolution of March, 19, 2014 No. 6-P, in the case on the constitutionality of the treaty between Russia and the so-called "Republic of Crimea", neglected the principles and provisions of the Memorandum on the further development of comprehensive mutually beneficial Ukrainian-Russian relations, ensuring the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedoms, mutual respect, trust and cooperation.

How international organizations responded to the invasion of Crimea

The General Assembly of the United Nations, in the Resolution "Territorial Integrity of Ukraine," dated March, 27, 2014 № 68/262, noted that the referendum held in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol was not valid and cannot be the basis for any change in the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (paragraph 5). Later resolutions of the UN General Assembly 71/205 of December, 19, 2016, 72/190 of December, 19, 2017, 73/263 of December, 22, 2018, 74/168 of December, 18, 2019, 74/17 of December, 9, 2019 declared their commitment to the sovereignty of Ukraine, non-recognition of annexation and condemnation of receiving territories or special benefits as a result of aggression.

On April, 9, 2014, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution No. 1288 (2014) “Recent Events in Ukraine: Threats to the Functioning of Democratic Institutions.” It stated that the referendum was unconstitutional, its results and the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia had no legal force and were not recognized by the Council of Europe (para. 16). Subsequent resolutions 2133 (2016), 2132 (2016), 2112 (2016), 2063 (2015), 2034 (2015), 1990 (2014), 1988 (2014) state the position that the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea by Russia and the military intervention of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine violate international law and principles supported by the Council of Europe.

The Venice Commission, in the opinion No. 762/2014 CDL-AD (2014) 002 adopted at the 98th plenary session (Venice, March, 21-22, 2014), stressed that the Constitution of Ukraine, like other constitutions of the member states of the Council of Europe, provides for the integrity of the country and does not allow for any local separation referendum. In addition, circumstances in Crimea did not allow holding a referendum in accordance with European democratic standards. Any referendum on the status of any territory must be preceded by negotiations by all parties concerned. There were no such negotiations. 

Why pseudo-referendums in Crimea and in the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are null and void

In 2014, Russia started aggression against Ukraine, using both the regular army and the so-called Russian-controlled "militia", and hybrid instruments of aggression such as fictitious referendums. The purpose of the pseudo-referendums was to create a pretended "legitimacy" of illegal decisions, giving them illusory signs of democracy. The procedure of organization of pseudo-referendums and voting violated generally recognized democratic standards: the process was closed, the voting was held under the control of the occupiers, and the results were falsified. This tactics can also be used in pseudo-referendums in the territories of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia, which Russia invaded after February, 24, 2022. The occupiers and their collaborators (the actual control of Russia over them is confirmed by the decision of the International Court of Justice of March, 16, 2022, Resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of 2016 No.2133 and No.2112) have repeatedly declared their intention to hold such "referendums". Conducting such "referendums" contradicts the following documents:

  1. The 1945 Charter of the United Nations (hereinafter referred to as the Charter of the United Nations), according to which political independence and territorial inviolability are components of state sovereignty, and the provisions of international law oblige states to refrain from violating their international relations by force or threat thereof (paragraph 4 of Art. 2).

At the same time, the right to national self-determination is guaranteed in international law. However, it cannot be implemented contrary to the provisions of international law and must be implemented through the conclusion of agreements (cession) or provided for by national legislation (secession). The unitary nature of the state, the absence of political autonomies and other than Ukrainian nation as a bearer of the right to self-determination make it impossible for any sovereign entity to create any formations on the territory of Ukraine. Similarly, the Constitution of Ukraine does not provide for the right of a separate part of Ukrainian citizens (including national minorities) to unilateral self-determination resulting in the territorial change of Ukraine as a unitary state.

  1. Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning friendly relations and cooperation among states in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. According to it, the territory of a state cannot be the object of military occupation or the use of force, and no territorial gains resulting from the use of force or its threat should be recognized as lawful.
  2. The Constitution of Ukraine: since both the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and any other area mentioned in the basic law are integral parts of the system of administrative-territorial structure of Ukraine. They are not subjects of international law and therefore cannot be parties to international treaties which consequences lead to the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

From the point of view of the Constitution of Ukraine and the Law "On the All-Ukrainian Referendum," the issue of changing the territory should be resolved:

  • at the all-Ukrainian referendum, not at the local one;
  • through the approval of the law on the ratification of the international treaty on the change of territory.
  1. International standards for holding referendums, compliance with which is a key prerequisite for the legitimacy of voting results. According to the Guidelines for Constitutional Referendums at the National Level adopted by the Venice Commission at its 47th Plenary Session (Venice, July, 6—7, 2001), the main provisions and guidelines are both general electoral principles (universal, equal right, free, direct and secret voting, freedom of speech, assembly and association, the possibility of judicial review) and provisions inherent only in referendums. Thus, these are clear requirements for questions to be put to a referendum. Questions that contradict these criteria should not be put to a popular vote. It should be noted that both the Guiding Principles and the Code of Good Practice on Referendums stipulate that referendums are allowed only if provided by the Constitution or the law under the Constitution, and the procedural provisions of the referendum must be observed.

Consequently, these pseudo-referendums and their results are useless from the legal point of view.

A clear example of the use of a pseudo-referendum for annexation comes from the 2014 events in Crimea. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Resolution No.1288 (2014) noted that "the so-called referendum organized in Crimea on March, 16, 2014, was unconstitutional, both under the Constitution of Crimea and the Constitution of Ukraine. In addition, the turnout and reported results are implausible. Thus, the consequence of this referendum, as well as the illegal annexation of the territory by the Russian Federation, have no legal force and are not recognized by the Council of Europe. The Assembly reaffirms its strong support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine. In connection with the denunciation by the Russian Federation of the agreements concluded with Ukraine in 1997 regarding the location of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the Assembly calls on Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea without undue delay.”

Therefore, Russia uses pseudo-referendums as a means of pretending to legitimize the annexation of Ukrainian territories. On the one hand, the occupation of a large part of Ukraine has shown the inability of international institutions to respond effectively to violations of international law and the protection of its key principles such as territorial inviolability and political independence. On the other hand, there is the need to reform the institutions for the protection of the international legal order. Finally, it showed that Russia's membership in the UN Security Council guarantees impunity to the aggressor and threatens to destroy the world order developed after the Second World War.

What threats come from the pseudo-referendum organised by Russia?

Pseudo-referendums in public areas will have nothing to do with the will of citizens, and their "results" will be null and void from the legal point of view. Russia is not too worried about formalities because they have long announced their intentions to claim Ukrainian territories "forever". However, the negative consequences of these illegal actions should not be mitigated. Pseudo-referendums threaten people who stayed in the occupied territories, the future of Ukraine and its neighbors, as well as the international security system as a whole.

OPORA analyzed:

  • How pseudo-referendums bring nuclear blackmail from Russia to a new level;
  • Why pseudo-referendums threaten the inhabitants of invaded territories;
  • How pseudo-referendums will contribute to the "cleansing" of the linguistic, cultural, and ethnic composition of these territories;
  • How the implementation of Russia's plans will affect the stability of Europe and strengthen Kremlin invaders' appetites.

The pseudo-referendum is a new level of nuclear blackmail. Russia was ready to use nuclear weapons during the occupation of Crimea if Western powers intervened and provided Ukraine with military assistance to protect the territory. Putin said this on the first anniversary of the occupation of Crimea. Now, there is every reason to believe that Russia will repeat this threat trying to annex the territories of Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

When Russia announces the "inclusion" of these territories as their part following the pseudo-referendum results, it will start warning Ukraine and the world about the inadmissibility of attacks on "their own" territory. For the West, this will mean new threats of conflict escalation and a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO or individual members of the alliance. It is likely that Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons against anyone who claims their "new territories."

There is no certainty in the Russian doctrine of the use of nuclear weapons as only Putin alone is entitled to interpret it. Now the Russian authorities hope that under the threat of a nuclear strike, the West will go to dialogue and agree to the annexation of Ukrainian lands, if not de jure, then de facto.

On June, 2, 2020, Putin signed the Decree "On the Fundamentals of State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Containment." It refers to a set of coordinated efforts based on a common political, economic, military, military-technical, diplomatic, information and other measures that rely on the forces and means of nuclear deterrence. Russia presents the purpose of nuclear deterrence as the prevention of aggression against them and their allies. This definition provides ample opportunities to manipulate imaginary threats and blackmail Ukraine and the world with nuclear weapons. The list of threats that Russia dares to offset through nuclear deterrence is rather broad. For example:

  • If the means of delivery of nuclear weapons are placed in the territories neighbouring Russia and its allies;
  • If the states that Russia considers opponents deploy missile defense systems, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles of medium and shorter range, high-precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons, drone strikes and directed energy weapon;
  • If they create and place in space missile defense systems and strike systems;
  • If the “adversary” states possess nuclear weapons and/or other weapons of mass destruction that can be used against Russia and/or its allies, as well as the means of delivery of these weapons;
  • If nuclear weapons, their means of delivery, technologies and equipment for their manufacture spread uncontrollably;
  • If nuclear weapons and their means of delivery are placed in territories of non-nuclear states.

The blurry “ifs” allow the Kremlin to claim that Ukraine's attempts to liberate the invaded and further annexed territories bring a threat to Russia. The aggressor has repeatedly tried to accuse Ukraine of developing weapons of mass destruction. In short, the pretext for applying "nuclear deterrence" is not difficult to find. There is no definite answer in the document when Russia allows itself to use nuclear weapons. The conditions for this may include the following:

  • Reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles that attack Russia or its allies;
  • The enemy's use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction on the territory of Russia or its allies;
  • The influence of the enemy on critical state and military facilities of Russia, which destruction will not allow the use of nuclear weapons in response;
  • Aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of Russia is endangered.

Nothing prevents the aggressor from saying that the attack of the Ukrainian army in Kherson region threatens the very existence of Russia. Or, they may repeat false accusations against Ukraine insisting it develops or uses weapons of mass destruction. In addition, by holding a pseudo-referendum and announcing the inclusion of invaded territories as their part, Russia can deploy nuclear weapons in these territories. In the occupied Crimea, before February, 24, 2022, 39 means were deployed that can be used as carriers of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the repeated threats and statements about the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus demonstrate not only open blackmail from Russia but also the total unpredictability of the Kremlin's actions. The very statements about the deployment of nuclear weapons in the newly annexed territories, even if Russia does not actually do so, will raise the level of nuclear blackmail to a dangerous level.

So the expectations of Russians is simple: to hold a pseudo-referendum, to declare the invaded territories as part of Russia, and then to threaten with nuclear weapons in case of an attempt to liberate these lands. The Kremlin hopes that the world gets frightened, admits the de facto situation and weakens support for Ukraine. In this case, Russia will be able to seize other  territories of Ukraine and other countries of the post-Soviet space with nuclear blackmail.

Forced passportization of the occupied territories. Article 45 of the Hague Regulations respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land prohibits compelling residents of an occupied territory to swear allegiance to an occupying State. However, Russia has already declared the residents of Crimea Russian citizens and plans to do the same with the residents of the territories occupied in 2022.

This allows the occupiers to identify opponents and repress them. Refusal to obtain a Russian passport helps the occupiers to identify "disloyal" citizens and pro-Ukrainian activists.

To encourage people to adopt Russian citizenship, the occupiers in Crimea and Sevastopol restricted access to social protection, pension assistance, health care, education, and employment for those who did not accept a Russian passport. Also, those who wanted to preserve the property had to accept Russian citizenship. In March, 2021, a Russian law came into force that prohibits "foreign citizens", stateless people, and "foreign legal entities" from owning land in Crimea. It can be assumed that the same will happen in the newly occupied territories of Ukraine.

People who have received Russian passports can be enlisted to engage in the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens whom Russia considers their own are enrolled in the army in Crimea. The burial of 125 Russian soldiers in Crimea has become known; 62 of them may be citizens of Ukraine. This will be discussed in more detail below.

In addition, compulsory acquisition of citizenship involves the payment of taxes and fees that Russia can use to financially support the invaded territories and wage war against Ukraine.

Russia considers Ukrainian citizens who have received a Russian passport as their own citizens: "A Russian citizen who also has another citizenship is considered by Russia as a Russian citizen only..." Given the primacy of the Russian Constitution over international law, this expands the possibilities of persecuting Ukrainians in the occupied territories as dissidents, including on trumped-up charges.

Passportization of Ukrainians on the territory invaded by Russia has already begun. The so-called "Deputy Head of the Military and Civil Administration of the Kherson Region," Kirill Stremousov, appointed by the occupiers, said on June, 16 that children born in the Kherson region after February, 24, and orphans will automatically receive Russian citizenship. Although the European Union has stated that it will not recognize Russian passports issued in the occupied territories of Ukraine as documents, compelled passportization will be one of the necessary tools for "internal legitimization" of the annexation of new territories. This practice can be expanded because on July ,11, 2022, Putin signed a decree on a simplified procedure for the acquisition of Russian citizenship for all citizens of Ukraine.

A pseudo-referendum is a compelled mobilization that brings death to the inhabitants of the occupied territories. Ukrainian citizens living in the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, occupied before February, 24, 2022, are forcibly mobilized by the occupiers to the formations of the so-called "people's republics" and thrown to the most dangerous areas of the front. They mobilize all men who live in the previously occupied territories, between the ages of 18 and 65. The death rate of untrained, forcibly mobilized servicemen is extremely high. Even Russian officials, commanders of the so-called "republics" and Russian journalists are not trying to conceal it. Besides, since Russians consider the entire territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as "territories of the DPR and LPR", and the residents of this territory are treated as citizens of the pseudo-republics, people in cities recently invaded by Russia will also face the compelled mobilization.

Thus, Russia flagrantly violates international conventions on the protection of civilians in the occupied territories. In particular, Article 51 of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August, 12, 1949 states that it is impossible to mobilize the inhabitants of the occupied territories into the army of the Occupying Power. Not only does the occupier have no right to compel civilians to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces: any pressure or propaganda for voluntary entry into the army is prohibited. Residents of the occupied territories should not be forced to participate in any military operations. In the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to compel a prisoner of war or other protected person (including a civilian resident of an occupied territory) to serve in the armed forces of a hostile State.

However, Russia does not believe that it should comply with these requirements because it considers Crimea and Sevastopol as its territory, and the "republics" proclaimed in the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were occupied in 2014—2015 are independent states. It can be assumed that by holding pseudo-referendums Russia will declare all residents of the occupied territories as Russian citizens and extend to them the obligation to serve in the army and to be mobilized. Nor will the lack of general mobilization in Russia save civilians in the occupied territories. After all, at the level of Russian regions, the creation of "voluntary" formations for participation in the war has already been practiced. Russians can mobilize Ukrainians in the occupied territories under the guise of "voluntary" formations or local units like the Ukrainian territorial defense.

Change in the political, ethnic, and linguistic composition of the population. After the annexation or occupation of a certain territory, the composition of the population there often changes rapidly, such as in ethnic, linguistic, and religious terms. A striking example is the occupation of Crimea. Since 2014, half a million people from Russia have moved to the peninsula. Russia calls a smaller figure — about 200,000 people. However, for a region with two million people, it is still a lot. Russians are encouraged to relocate to Crimea. They are offered cash assistance and housing. At the same time, Ukrainian citizens on the peninsula suffer persecutions. According to the Prosecutor of Crimea and Sevastopol, Ihor Ponochovny, only about 30,000 Crimean Tartars were forced to leave the Crimea occupied by Russia due to persecution on political, religious, or ethnic grounds. In general, more than 100,000 citizens of Ukraine left Crimea. Since 2018, there have been no schools with Ukrainian as the language of instruction in Crimea, and schools with Crimean Tatar as the language of instruction has been halved. Russia announces the transfer of schools of the occupied parts of Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions to the Russian curriculum from the first of September. In Mariupol, children are already being taught according to Russian curriculum.

The occupiers also interfere in religious life. Russian-controlled militants closed all mosques in the occupied territory of the Donetsk region that did not comply with their demands. According to the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience, the same situation is found in Crimea, where mosques are allowed to have sermons only if they have been agreed with the occupiers. In the Hizb-ut-Tahrir case alone, at least 89 people are persecuted, 55 of whom have been imprisoned. Recently sentenced Azamat Eyupov has been given 17 years in prison. Russia will also use this tactic in the newly occupied territories because it allows growing the "loyalty" of local communities and complicates the reintegration of these lands into Ukraine.

Risks to stability in Europe. One of the most important principles of international law is the inviolability of borders. This principle is closely related to territorial integrity, which provides for the inviolability of the territory of the state from encroachments of other states by means of military force or threat of force. Having invaded Crimea in 2014 and the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Russia undermined the post-war security system in Europe and created the most dangerous precedent of changing state borders in the 21st century. The response of the international community allowed Russia to completely destroy the security system in Europe in eight years, starting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February, 24, 2022.

More than 17,500 registered crimes of aggression and war crimes committed by the Russian occupiers on the territory of Ukraine prove Russia's total disregard for generally accepted norms and rules. In view of this, the very possibility of holding pseudo-referendums on the territory of Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts can only be a prelude to further violations of international law by Russia. However, it is not only about the invasion of other Ukrainian lands. Putin is not hiding that he seeks to restore the Russian empire. Putin called the 1940 annexation of the Baltic states the “incorporation on a contractual basis with the consent of the elected authorities.” Besides, one of the main ideologists of the United Russia party, deputy of the State Duma, Oleg Morozov, expressly threatened Poland with “denazification.” Russia borders with several European states and essentially controls Belarus, which borders Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. Therefore, the very possibility of internal legitimization of the annexation of the invaded territories through a referendum will only instigate Russian territorial ambitions and diminish diplomatic and political leverage on Russia.

Russia’s preparation for pseudo-referendums: statements, resources, and opportunities of the occupiers to imitate the "expression of will"

Russia does not conceal their intentions to annex the territories of Ukraine invaded before and after February, 24, 2022. In addition to the Russian army, the occupied territories also have representatives of the Russian authorities. For example, there are Departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions. Russian officials have been assigned to each occupied territory. Serhii Kyrienko, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Russia, became the political curator of the invaded lands. On the part of the Russian government, the process of absorption of Ukrainian regions is coordinated by a Vice Prime Minister, Murat Khusnullin. Sometimes the Kremlin replaces local collaborators on positions in the occupation administrations with Russian officials. They explain this with the need to perform new tasks of integrating the territories into Russia.

The pseudo-referendum on joining Russia, according to the invaders’ plan, should be the final act of illegal annexation. This significantly differentiates the current situation from 2014, when pseudo-referendums in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were used as a justification for further aggression. It is no longer about "green men," "people's initiatives," crowd-"appointed" "people's mayors and governors": Russia acts openly. Moreover, they are not afraid of profanation and absurdization of pseudo-referendums, ignoring the formalities. Russia hopes that the world will swallow the annexation of new territories, as it swallowed the Crimea before. In fact, earlier, Russian deputies and heads of occupation administrations publicly spoke about the possible annexation of the invaded lands, without any pseudo-referendums. In May, a collaborator Kirill Stremousov said that "the referendum does not make sense" because the world still does not recognize it, so no time should be wasted for "democracy." In June, the Chief Intelligence Directorate of Russia confirmed the desire to include the invaded lands in Russia, even without imitation of voting. However, in June and July, local traitors, deputies of the State Duma of Russia, and local officials began to talk about the preparation of a pseudo-referendum. Nevertheless, its "result" can be known in advance because the Russians have repeatedly said that Russia would not give up the invaded territory and that they "came to stay forever."

Where, When, and How Can Pseudo-Referendums Be Held?

Russia occupied almost the entire territory of Luhansk and Kherson regions, most of Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions, part of Kharkiv region, and a small part of Mykolaiv region. The procedure of preparation for pseudo-referendums was started in Zaporizhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts. The date has not been announced but Russians imply September, 11. At least, this applies to Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions. On this day, Russia is going to have elections at various levels.

The local heads of "military and civil administrations" have announced the creation of "election commissions" at district and precinct levels, and intermittently report on their performance.

In Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Russians first hope to seize the entire territory of both regions. The heads of the Russian occupation administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk talk about the intention to hold a "referendum on joining Russia" within the administrative boundaries of two oblasts, after these regions are fully invaded. These statements have been reiterated by many Russian politicians visiting the occupied territories.

In the occupied part of Kharkiv region, this issue has been postponed so far.

In Russia, they say that the autumn session of the Russian parliament can be devoted to the integration of new territories "into the legal space of Russia". This was stated by Andrii Klyshas, the Chairman of the Committee of the Federation Council on Constitutional Legislation and State Building.

Aggression Infrastructure: What Russia Has in the Occupied Territories for Holding Pseudo-Referendums

OPORA has explored how Russia cements its control over the invaded territories and how this will help it implement the illegal plans to "adjoin" Ukrainian regions. Despite the resistance of the locals, the aggressor builds up the Russian authorities and representative offices of political parties on Ukrainian lands. Russia implements illegal passportization and destroys the social and economic ties of the residents of the occupied territories with the free territories of Ukraine. The scenario is obvious: the occupier wants to control the territory as much as possible before attempting to illegally annex it.

The Russian police are the guarantors of lawlessness during the referendum. Occupation police are being formed in the occupied territories. Whereas at the beginning of the occupation, this police force was staffed by residents of the previously occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and by Crimeans, in July, temporary offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia and temporary deployment centers of Russian police officers were created in the territory of Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts. This is apparently necessary to prepare for pseudo-referendums and create the appearance of law and order for Russian propaganda media. In addition, under the guise of "combating extremism," the Russian police constantly repress Ukrainians who refuse to cooperate with the occupiers and express pro-Ukrainian views.

Russian parties are encroaching on the Ukrainian territory to prevail. The occupiers use the humanitarian disaster that they themselves created to collect personal data of Ukrainians and find loyal people who could be involved in pseudo-referendums for money. Under the guise of a humanitarian mission in Kherson and Zaporizhia, the pro-government party of Russia, the "United Russia," began to operate. Numerous photos and videos of the distribution of humanitarian aid under the Putin party's brand have been published online. In many occupied cities in the south and east of Ukraine, “United Russia” branches have opened under the guise of party cells of the "We Are Together With Russia". Under this brand, the occupation authorities try to hold illustrative forums, meetings, holidays, sports events in support of pseudo-referendums. Party headquarters compile registers of people in need and collect data on those receiving the aid. This information can be used to create voter lists for a pseudo-referendum. This process is supervised by current and former deputies of the Russian State Duma, in particular, by Viktor Vodolatskyi (a deputy of the four convocations of the State Duma) has been presented in the propaganda media as a "curator of the humanitarian mission to the LPR." The southern oblasts were visited by the Vice President of the State Duma, Anna Kuznetsova, and the MP Artem Bychaiev.

Russian rubles and the disruption of economic ties with the free territory. Having provoked a humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories, Russia is distributing one-time monetary assistance to incline Ukrainians to their side and collect their personal data. To receive money, you need to register with the occupation administration and offer your personal data. Registration is encouraged with monthly payments to people with disabilities, to caregivers for people with disabilities, with one-time payments after childbirth and monthly subsistence payments for children. To receive "children's money", you need to obtain a Russian birth certificate or submit documents for full-time study at a school under the Russian curriculum.

At the same time, Russia artificially creates a deficit of rubles and lowers the exchange rate of hryvnia to 1.5 rubles (the real average rate in banks is 2.6 rubles per hryvnia). Prices for food and services become higher in UAH, and it is more profitable for people to use the rubles. In addition, the occupation administration obliges the businessed to indicate prices and accept payment both in UAH and in rubles, and monitors compliance with this requirement.

In the occupation administrations, so-called property funds have been created. They account for and register not only public and communal facilities, but also private objects. In order to retain ownership of property and the right to conduct business, people in the occupied territories must register and obtain permission from the occupation administrations. Businesses that refuse to cooperate with the Russian occupation authorities will be claimed under external management, and property will be confiscated without any reimbursement.

Forced passportization in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. This is not only a tool for collecting personal data and attracting potential voters, but also a prerequisite for creating propaganda materials that justify military aggression and legitimize pseudo-referendums. Putin's decree simplified the procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for all Ukrainians. Institutions that issue Russian passports have been opened in the occupied territories, and the official representative office of the Russian Migration Service has been opened in Melitopol.

Since the Russian occupation administration does not have access to Ukrainian registers, documents for obtaining Russian citizenship are collected manually. Personal data is sent for verification to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia. The processing of documents and printing of passports is coordinated in the occupied Crimea. Compelled passportization is another tool of repression: the experience of Crimea and the previously invaded territories of Donetsk and Luhansk proves that the renunciation of Russian citizenship can lead to deportation, confiscation of housing and other property.

Information blockade of the invaded territories. Russians limit the work of Ukrainian media and artificially create an information blockade of the occupied territories. To do this, the occupiers seized the media infrastructure. From March, 2014 to July, 2022, at least 131 objects of the media infrastructure, such as TV towers, repeaters, or radio transmitters, were seized in the territories of Ukraine invaded by Russia. At least 48 media infrastructure facilities were captured from February, 24, to July, 15, 2022. The largest number of media equipment stayed behind in the occupied Crimea — 58 facilities; a little less (34 sites) remained in Luhansk region. In Donetsk and Kherson oblasts, there are at least 12 TV towers and repeaters under the occupation, in Kharkiv — 8, in Zaporizhia — 7.

In particular, as of July, 4, 14 regional and 53 local TV companies, as well as 18 regional and 47 local radio companies have stopped broadcasting on TOTs. In general, this is about 15% of all broadcasters in Ukraine. Some of them stopped working in order not to cooperate with the occupation authorities. Media people in the occupied territory have been abducted and threatened. For residents of the occupied territories, this means the loss of reliable sources of local news.

According to the National Television and Radio Council of Ukraine, from February, 24, to mid-July 2022, at least 46 providers had to stop operating in the occupied territories. Some ISPs were forced by blackmail to connect to Russian networks, others were seized by the occupation authorities, and the traffic was redirected through Russian providers (mostly through Miranda, a Crimean subsidiary of the Russian Internet provider Rostelecom).

At the same time, as noted in the Kherson RMA, due to traffic redirection, access to some Ukrainian online resources is possible only through VPN services. The same situation is found in the occupied part of Zaporizhzhya region. A number of local online publications that keep working ("Energodar.City", "In Energodar", "Zaporizhzhya Investigation Project", "Berdyansk 24" "TokmakInformBuro", etc.), have been blocked by Roskomnadzor and are available to residents of the occupied territories only through VPN. Access to social media in the occupied territories has also been restricted. In May, the occupiers blocked access to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Viber. In July, they restricted access to Google services. It is now limited to Telegram only.

The captured media infrastructure is used by Russians to broadcast Russian TV channels and radio stations, as well as to transmit propaganda broadcasters. After February, 24, the Russian occupation authorities launched Tavria, ZaTV, Novyi Mariupol TV channels; they began publishing newspapers under the local brands Priazovsky Rabochy, Nadnepranskaya Pravda, Zaporozhye Vestnik, and Kakhovsky Vestnik, as well as a number of online publications.

However, the main efforts are aimed at spreading propaganda in the Telegram messenger. This is where the "official" statements and messages of the occupation authorities are shared, in particular about the preparation for pseudo-referendums. After February, 24, Russians created over a hundred Telegram channels for residents of the occupied territories or those that Russia planned to occupy. Some of them were created on the eve of the invasion — from February, 20 to February, 23. Some channels are "official" (for example, Kherson oblast administration, Melitopol city administration, etc.). Some of them simulate local media and news resources, spreading Russian disinformation about military actions on the territory of Ukraine (for example, Berdyansk. Official, Main News in Chernobayevka, New Melitopol, etc.). The Security Service of Ukraine confirmed the links of some of these channels with Russia. Russia had begun to use Telegram to spread propaganda, misinformation, and influence the information agenda in Ukraine long before the full-scale invasion began.

How Russia Prepares for the Pseudo-Referendums

On July, 23, 2022, heads of Russian occupation administrations announced the creation of election commissions to conduct "referendums" on the entry of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts into Russia. They started enrolling people into election commissions. On July, 30, it was reported that the occupying administrations were preparing a request to the Central Election Committee of Russia to organize a referendum. This may indicate problems with the involvement of election commission members and logistical support for the pseudo-referendum process. Although the official participation of the CEC of Russia contradicts both the practice of previous pseudo-referendums and the rhetoric of the occupiers about the "self-determination" of the invaded regions, there is a possibility that the pseudo-referendums will be organized along with the elections in Russia scheduled for September, 11.

The Central Election Commission of Ukraine suspended the State Voter Register on February, 24, so the occupiers do not have access to voter lists. They make their own lists of people who can potentially take part in the "voting". This is also evidenced by the fact that the occupation authorities have stolen electoral documentation from the State Archives of Kherson Oblast.

Zaporizhzhia collaborator Volodymyr Rogov informed about the preparation of the so-called "international monitoring mission." Russia has repeatedly used false "international observers" to legitimize its pseudo-referendums. Carefully selected "observers and experts" hired by Russia will give a high assessment of the quality of voting at the pseudo-referendum. The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) has repeatedly criticized the practice of attracting false observers and recommends not to consider their findings as legitimate.

Law-enforcement bodies of Ukraine are also talking about active preparation for holding pseudo-referendums. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the occupation administrations have developed a training plan and determined the main areas of work, with the set timeline. They also plan to organize mass pro-Russian rallies. The Chief Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine confirms that Russians are preparing to simulate a referendum. In particular, through distributing humanitarian aid and money, they recruit participants for rallies in support of "joining Russia". However, there is still no final date for holding the pseudo-referendums.

Russian authorities and propaganda are trying to legitimize pseudo-referendums by holding rallies, forums, and other events in support of the entry of the occupied territories into Russia. Due to the fact that Ukrainians do not want to participate in these campaigns, the organizers attract special extras from among the members of pro-Kremlin NGOs "Rosmolodyozh", "Young Guard", "Volunteers of Russia", "We are with Russia" and others. Those are mostly Russians who imitate Russia's support among the locals and help to film staged stories for pro-Kremlin media. For this purpose, Russian political technologists have travelled to the occupied territories, promoting in the local information space the narratives about the advantages of joining Russia, while managing the organization of campaigning before pseudo-referendums. Campaigning materials with calls to "be with Russia" are widely distributed. Instead, the Russian authorities consider any statement against the occupation authorities and the holding of a pseudo-referendum to be a call for extremism. Despite this, Ukrainians in the occupied territories covertly spread calls not to obey the invaders. 

How to stop the Russian scenario: OPORA's recommendations

To international organizations and Governments of States

The consequences of pseudo-referendums on the territories invaded by Russia can be disastrous for Ukrainian citizens. Challenges for global security will also be serious because Russia wants to impose their rules of coexistence between states where illegal annexation, armed aggression, and crimes against civilians are acceptable. States to which Russia has potential territorial and so-called security claims are Moldova, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and others. They will be particularly vulnerable. The only possible way to prevent the worst case scenarios is to liberate Ukrainian territories. To do this, we need to strengthen military support for Ukraine and weaken Russia's capability to wage war through new sanctions.

Strengthening the sanctions regime. Russia should be recognized as a State sponsor of terrorism, under the laws of the United States of America and other partner states. Under U.S. law, in order to identify a state as a sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that state has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism. So far, only four states — Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran, and Syria — have been recognized as sponsors of terrorism. This status means the simultaneous application of a wide range of sanctions:

  • Restriction of external assistance of the United States of America;
  • Prohibition on export and sale of defense products;
  • Control of exports of dual-use goods;
  • Financial and trade restrictions.

In addition, it entails the "secondary" sanctions that the United States will apply to individuals and states outside the United States that do business with Russia. This means that it will become extremely unprofitable to trade with Russia. Also, an important element of this status is the revocation of Russia's sovereign immunity in US courts.

Lists of personal sanctions should be updated to include Russian officials involved in the illegal integration of Ukrainian territories into Russia and in the preparation of a pseudo-referendum.

Strengthening military assistance to Ukraine. Since Russia systematically violates the norms of international law, in particular in the invaded territories, negotiations or acts of international organizations cannot ensure immediate de-escalation, cessation of war crimes or violation of human rights. It remains to force Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territories with weapons. In order to gain a strategic advantage on the battlefield, prevent the transition of the war into a protracted phase and begin the liberation of the occupied territories, the Ukrainian army urgently needs heavy weapons. First of all, it goes about multiple rocket launch systems and long-range artillery systems according to NATO standards, ammunition for them, air and missile defense systems, armored vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Then, there are tanks and aviation. If we provide all this in the right amount to the Ukrainian army, we can change the course of the war and save thousands of human lives. Moreover, Russia will not be able to illegally annex Ukrainian territories.

Expulsion of Russia from reputable international organizations. Russia should be expelled from international organizations, in particular from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose mandate and mission do not correspond to Russia's desire to destroy the systems of international law and human rights standards. We should also talk seriously about depriving Russia of membership in the UN Security Council.

Renunciation of Russia's unilateral concessions and unbalanced negotiations. International organizations and governments should abandon attempts to resume negotiations with Russia as long as it demonstrates lack of any intention to cease its aggressive actions against Ukraine. Russia's unilateral concessions will only worsen the situation, and the conflict will be waged on a larger territory.

To the Ukrainian State

To systemically inform governments of other states and international organizations about concrete steps of the occupiers preparing and conducting the pseudo-referendums.

To develop and publish proposals for a list of new sanctions against Russia provoked by the preparations for pseudo-referendums.

To effectively document and investigate crimes related to collaboration during the organization of illegal pseudo-voting and the work of occupation administrations. At the same time, it is important to refrain from strict sanctions against civilians if their collaboration with the occupation administration has been forced and dictated by survival needs.

Citizens of Ukraine in the Invaded Territories

To avoid the involvement in preparation and holding of pseudo-referendums. OPORA offers clear recommendations to residents of the occupied territories on how to behave during a pseudo-referendum.

Potential Organizers of the Pseudo-Referendum

The Criminal Code of Ukraine provides for serious criminal liability for collaborationism. In particular, for organizing illegal elections and referendums in the occupied territories. For this, depending on the nature of the crime, you can go to prison from 5 to 12 years, with deprivation of the right to hold certain positions for 10 to 15 years. Confiscation of property may also be involved.

Those involved in the preparation and conduct of the pseudo-referendum will be included in the international sanctions lists. It will be impossible to conceal one’s engagement in the implementation of Russia's plans in the occupied territories.

Pseudo-Referendums in the Invaded Territories of Ukraine: What Russia Plans to Do and How to Disable Them (short report)