Ukrainians Scared by Russia Referendums09/26 07:07
After seven months of war, many Ukrainians fear even more suffering and
political repression as referendums orchestrated by the Kremlin portend
Russia's imminent annexation of four occupied regions.
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- After seven months of war, many Ukrainians fear even
more suffering and political repression as referendums orchestrated by the
Kremlin portend Russia's imminent annexation of four occupied regions.
Many residents fled the regions before the so-called referendums got
underway, scared about being forced to vote or potentially being conscripted
into the Russian army. Others described hiding behind closed doors, hoping to
avoid having to answer to armed soldiers going door-to-door to collect votes.
Petro Kobernik, who left the Russian-held southern city of Kherson just
before the preordained voting began Friday, said the prospect of living under
Russian law and the escalating war made him and others extremely jittery about
"The situation is changing rapidly, and people fear that they will be hurt
either by the Russian military, or Ukrainian guerrillas and the advancing
Ukrainian troops," Kobernik, 31, said in a telephone interview.
As some Russian officials brought ballots to neighborhoods accompanied by
armed police, Kobernik said his 70-year-old father shut the door of his private
house in the village of Novotroitske -- part of Kherson -- and vowed not to let
The referendums, denounced by Kyiv and its Western allies as rigged, are
taking place in the Russian-controlled Luhansk and Kherson regions, and in
occupied areas of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. They are widely viewed
as a pretext for annexation, and Russian authorities are expected to announce
the regions as theirs once the vote ends Tuesday.
The Kremlin has used this tactic before. In 2014, it held a hastily called
referendum in Ukraine's Crimea region to justify annexation of the Black Sea
peninsula, a move that was denounced as illegitimate by most of the world.
Ukrainian authorities have told residents of the four Russian-occupied
regions that they would face criminal punishment if they cast ballots and
advised them to leave.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began mobilizing more troops for the
war last week, said he's ready to use nuclear weapons to protect territory in a
clear threat to Ukraine to halt its attempts to reclaim the regions.
Putin's escalating rhetoric and politically risky decision to call up as
many as 300,000 army reservists comes after Russians were hastily forced to
retreat from large swaths of northeastern Ukraine earlier this month. A fierce
Ukrainian counteroffensive continues in the country's east and south.
Moscow-appointed governor of the southern Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo,
vowed that Ukrainian attempts to derail the referendum by shelling the city
"It's complicated because of security issues, but everything will be done to
make the balloting safe for the voters and election officials," Saldo said in a
video address. "People are waiting to join Russia and want it done as quickly
Moscow-backed separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions claim
that most residents of these territories have dreamed about joining Russia ever
since Russia's annexation of Crimea.
But many residents there tell a different story.
"The streets are empty as people stay home," Marina Irkho, a 38-year-old
resident of the Sea of Azov port city of Berdyansk said by phone. "No one wants
them to declare us part of Russia and start rounding up our men."
She said that "those who actively stood for Ukraine have left or gone into
hiding," adding that many of the older people who supported Russia have stayed
but feel scared.
Ukrainian guerrillas have continuously targeted Moscow-appointed officials
in the occupied regions.
Just a week before the referendum, a deputy head of the Berdyansk city
administration and his wife who headed the city election commission were killed
in an attack.
Members of the Yellow Band guerrilla group named after Ukraine's
yellow-and-blue national flag have spread leaflets threatening those who cast
ballots and urged residents to send photos and video of people who vote to
track them down later.
The guerrillas also posted phone numbers of election commission chiefs in
the Kherson region, calling on pro-Ukraine activists to "make their life
Ukrainian officials say signs of the referendums' illegitimacy are all
"The Russians are seeing the citizens' fear and reluctance to vote, so they
are forced to take people in," said Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of the
Russia-held city of Melitopol, who was detained and held by the Russians before
leaving the city.
"Groups of collaborators and Russians accompanied by armed troops go from
one apartment to another, but few people open the doors," Fedorov said. "The
haste with which they organized that pseudo-referendum shows that they weren't
going to even count the ballots in earnest."
Larysa Vinohradova, a resident of the port city of Mariupol who left the
city after the Russian invasion, said that many of her friends stayed because
they had to take care of elderly parents refusing to flee. "They don't stand
for Russia, they want Mariupol to be part of Ukraine, and they are waiting for
it," she said, bursting into tears.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai, who left the region after it was swept by the
Russian forces, said that residents fear that the Russians will round up more
men in the region for military service following Putin's mobilization order.
"The Russians are using this pseudo-referendum as a pretext for armed people
to visit apartments and search for any remaining men to mobilize them and also
look for anything suspicious and pro-Ukrainian," Haidai told The Associated
"The swift Ukrainian counteroffensive has scared the Russians," he added.
Analysts say Putin is hoping to use the threat of military escalation to
force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into negotiating with the Kremlin.
"The haste with which the referendums were called shows the weakness of the
Kremlin, not its strength," said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center,
an independent think tank based in Kyiv. "The Kremlin is struggling to find
levers to influence the situation that has spun out of its control."