The Kremlin is holding votes in occupied regions of Ukraine in a process that has been dismissed as “fake elections” and a “sham” by Kyiv and western capitals.
The vote comes as 54 Russian regions also hold votes, and the Ukrainian ballots are aimed at bolstering Vladimir Putin’s claims on the occupied areas. Some of the votes concern territories where the Kremlin does not hold de facto control despite Putin declaring their annexation last September.
The Kremlin is expected to claim a heavy victory in the votes for the Kremlin-adjacent United Russia or nominal opposition parties.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry criticised the votes as “pseudo-elections”, called on other governments not to recognise their results and said it would lobby for new international sanctions on all those involved in organising the vote.
“Russia’s pseudo-elections in the temporarily occupied territories are negligible. They will have no legal consequences and will not lead to a change in the status of the Ukrainian territories captured by the Russian army. By organising fake elections in the Ukrainian regions and Crimea, the Kremlin continues to delegitimise the Russian legal system,” the ministry said.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said in Kyiv on Thursday that “Russia’s sham elections in occupied areas of Ukraine are illegitimate”, and the Council of Europe has called them a “flagrant violation of international law”.
Voting for the Russian-controlled legislatures will be held in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, where Russia holds only partial control on the ground. Those legislatures will then appoint local Kremlin-loyal governors.
Ballots are also being held in 50 regions of Russia, including in Moscow where the powerful mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is expected to remain in post as he enjoys the Kremlin’s support.
Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at University College London, said: “The illegal ‘elections’ being held in the occupied territories of Ukraine can be seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to demonstrate its control over these territories when that control is challenged on so many other fronts. The intention is to project an image of normality.”
He said orchestrating elections was “part of the bread and butter of local, regional and federal governance in Russia, so rolling elections out to occupied territories is also part of Moscow’s attempt to establish the Russian way of doing things, including by forming chains of command, lines of responsibility and expectations regarding voting and results.”
The voting may prove to be a dress rehearsal for the 2024 presidential elections, in which Putin will seek another six-year term having launched a war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian casualties, an economic downturn and international isolation.
Representatives of the Russian foreign ministry have said criticism of the elections is seen as interference in Russian domestic politics.
Russia’s lack of control of the Ukrainian territory was on display again on Friday when three people were killed in a Russian airstrike in the village of Odradakamianka, in the Kherson region. Putin nominally annexed the region last September but the Russian army has since abandoned large swaths of the territory due to a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, who is in exile in government-controlled territory, said on Telegram there were two explosions at a polling station set up by Russians in the occupied city of Berdiansk.
Askad Ashurbekov, a councillor in Zaporizhzhia city, told a Ukrainian television network there were two goals of the so-called elections: to provide propaganda images for internal Russian consumption, and to expose pro-Ukrainian residents of occupied areas, who would refuse to vote.
Ashurbekov said: “The situation is fully absurd. They are posting photographs on their official sites where members of the so-called ‘election commissions’ are accompanied by armed guards.”
Russia has rolled out new technology, including electronic voting, that observers believe will make it easier for the Kremlin to falsify votes. The Kremlin may use this week’s ballots to calibrate the technology before the 2024 vote.
“From a technical point of view, these elections are also being used by Russia’s Central Electoral Commission to further test online voting, manipulations of which are much trickier to detect, before the March 2024 presidential election,” Noble said.
Ukraine was scheduled to hold nationwide parliamentary elections next month and a presidential election in spring next year, but according to the constitution, elections cannot be held while martial law is in force. There is a discussion in Ukrainian society over when elections should be held, with some voices suggesting that even in times of war, elections are required to keep democracy functioning.
Last month, the US senator Lindsey Graham called on Kyiv to organise elections despite the war. Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said there are several problems with holding elections now, including how to ensure those Ukrainians living in occupied territories can vote, and the organisational headache of organising voting for the millions of Ukrainians who have left Ukraine since the war began.
“We are ready, there’s no question about it,” Zelenskiy said at a conference in Kyiv. “It’s not a question of democracy, this is exclusively an issue of security. We have to do everything possible to make sure that our military can vote, those in the trenches at the frontline, because they are fighting for the rights of our people and being disfranchised is out of the question.”