Russian authorities announced this week that early voting has started for local elections in occupied areas of Ukraine, in an effort to further solidify the Kremlin’s grip on power in territories it has invaded.
The elections are just the latest attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin at legitimizing his country’s occupation of the territories. And already, the early voting seems destined to repeat the results of past sham referenda and polling by Russia in Ukraine: The vast majority of candidates in these elections belong to the Kremlin’s United Russia party and are running virtually unopposed. Governors handpicked by Moscow are seeking full terms of office, Reuters reported.
The Russian-installed governor of Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, already predicted that United Russia would get a robust vote.
“We are confident that United Russia will get a well-deserved percent of the vote reflecting the work it has been doing under your leadership,” Balitsky told Putin in August.
A majority of governments around the globe have deemed Russia’s referenda and attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions last year to be rigged and illegal. And Russia still doesn’t fully control the territories for which it’s trying to hold elections.
Polling in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia opened Thursday, while voting in the Kherson and Luhansk regions were slated to begin this weekend. It’s the first time the regions are participating in nationwide elections in Russia.
Signs have begun to emerge that Russia is synchronizing the voting with efforts to silence Ukraine’s narratives about the invasion and to run intimidation schemes to force votes in favor of Kremlin cronies.
“No one wants surprises. There is a simple task: to show popular support for United Russia by the population of the ‘new regions,’” a source familiar with the Kremlin’s plans told Verstka, an independent Russian outlet.
To ensure all goes according to plan, Russia has set up video surveillance at all polling stations, according to Russia’s election commission. The commission claimed Thursday “video recording will be conducted around the clock.”
“It is a lot of theater to compensate for shortfalls in a lot of areas, not the least of which is popular support.”
Soldiers will monitor residents of Donetsk casting their ballots as well, said the Russian mayor of Donetsk.
The set-up might indicate the Kremlin hopes to intimidate voters with a “show of force,” said Gavin Wilde, a former White House National Security Council director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus affairs.
But it also might hint at some uncertainty in the Kremlin about Moscow’s level of control in the regions—and a fear that Ukrainian saboteurs might try to hamper the Kremlin’s goals in the elections.
Ukraine drone attacks inside Russia have increased in intensity in recent days. Just this past week, drones hit Pskov air base, damaging Russian aircraft, in what is believed to be the largest Ukrainian attack inside Russia since Putin started the war last February.
Those attacks might be causing the Kremlin to assess whether they have enough control within occupied territories in Ukraine to prevent further attacks.
“It does seem like there are a lot of capable partisans operating deep within Russian territory, so I don’t have any doubt that they may have tentacles that can reach into occupied Ukrainian territory to put a wrench in the spokes of these elections,” Wilde told The Daily Beast. “I can’t imagine the Kremlin’s not at least a little bit concerned.”
Past elections in Donetsk and Luhansk have been riddled with disreputable attempts to juice voting, from bribes to militant operations to threats. Some voters have reported voting at gunpoint. In Crimea, violence, disappearances, and intimidation abounded in the 2014 referenda. (Election results appeared skewered as well: In Sevastopol, in Crimea, turnout for voters in 2014 notoriously reached 123 percent.)
In recent days, Russia appears to be concerned that it lacks authentic support in elections, the leading Russian election watchdog, Golos, said in a statement.
“It appears as though some representatives of the authorities doubt their actual support and the attainability of desired outcomes in the upcoming presidential and regional elections under the conditions of independent public oversight over elections,” Golos said.
For Russia’s presidential elections next year, too, the Kremlin has already embarked upon efforts to tightly control the candidates Putin is expected to run against to ensure his victory.
The Kremlin’s decision to hold additional days of voting in the occupied regions is likely an attempt at building up the legitimacy of the results.
“Using the run-up to September  is an opportunity to popularize their handpicked quote unquote candidates and get the word out and kind of create pretext for… whatever the manipulated outcome is going to be,” Wilde said. “It is a lot of theater to compensate for shortfalls in a lot of areas, not the least of which is popular support.”
Kyiv claims that Russia opted to extend the number of voting days available as it is scrounging around for any supportive voters to take part.
“Such an extended scheme is necessary for the Russians to hide the turnout and the lack of interest of the locals in the ‘show of will,’” the National Resistance Center of the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine’s Armed Forces stated in an assessment Thursday.
The European Union earlier condemned Russia’s decision to host elections in the occupied regions in Ukraine, calling them out for lacking legitimacy. “This is a further futile attempt by Russia to pretend to legitimize its illegal military control and attempted annexation,” said Peter Stano, the EU’s Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
“I don’t have any doubt that they may have tentacles that can reach into occupied Ukrainian territory to put a wrench in the spokes of these elections.”
Despite the condemnations, though, in the future, Moscow will be able to point to these elections as evidence—albeit convoluted and likely fabricated evidence—of the territories as Russian regions, noted Wilde.
“Things like these elections kind of create this inflection point in time that Moscow can point to in a very legalistic way and say, ‘look, this isn’t a debate anymore, that moment has passed,’” Wilde said. “They can point at some formality or piece of paper, or some form of going through the motions that says, ‘we already adjudicated this and we’re not going back on it.’”
It is likely both an effort to suppress the will of Ukrainians working to counter Russia’s invasion, and an effort to broadcast some kind of a victory back to domestic audiences, even as the Russian war effort itself flags.
Putin is also likely running the elections with an eye towards the future, and looking to use the results as an insurance policy for years to come for Russia. Even if Putin himself has left the building, future Kremlin operatives may struggle to concede control of the regions in potential negotiations over Ukrainian territory once elections have taken place, Wilde warned.
Already, Kyiv is working to fight back and counteract Russia’s influence in the occupied regions. The National Resistance Center urged Ukrainian residents in occupied territories to leave during the voting period or to not open their doors to Russians, who are reportedly going through neighborhoods and going to people’s homes to round up voters.
“We urge Ukrainians not to open their doors to the occupiers, but to leave the region or their homes for the period of ‘early voting’ if possible,” the National Resistance Center said.
Even so, it’s not clear that this message will even reach Ukrainians interested in resisting. The Kremlin has already gone to great lengths to shape the information environment in occupied territories as solidly pro-Russian. Last year, Russia embarked on an effort to launch pro-Kremlin media assets and propagandists throughout the occupied territories following the invasion.
And in recent days, as elections have neared, Russia has been working to increase the intensity of its propaganda machine in Ukraine. The Kremlin launched a training for new propaganda artists in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, in order to train up more locals earlier this month.
Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s First Deputy Chief of Staff, who has been in charge of the governors, met with Putin and media outlets pushing Russian propaganda late last month to discuss the next phase of information operations targeting Ukraine, according to a Ukrainian military intelligence report. The scheme includes several prongs about the war in Ukraine, but zeroed in on spreading propaganda that the elections in occupied territories in Ukraine are “free.”
Russia has honed in on targeting critics of the elections as well. In August, police raided the homes of 14 current and former members of Golos and charged one of its leaders, Grigory Melkonyants, with associating with an “undesirable” entity. One member had to go to the hospital with spinal and head injuries after the raids, according to Golos.
Golos called the targeting a blatant attempt at pressuring the organization—and other would-be election observers—to back off.
“The true purpose of this attack on Golos is to prevent public observation on the eve of the Russian presidential election campaign and the upcoming September 10 regional elections,” Golos said. “The instigators of this pressure fail to comprehend that as long as voters’ rights are violated, there will always be people who stand up to defend them.”