Russia has recently held local elections, including – for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine last February – counting votes in the four territories annexed to Russia after a series of illegal and illegitimate referendums last September. The outcome of these elections – another “triumph” for the Putin regime – was never in doubt.
But the way in which they were conducted – with hundreds of complaints and reports of irregularities – is telling, both about the state of the illegal occupation and about Russia’s plans and expectations for the next stage of the war.
From a Russian perspective, the elections add supposed legitimacy to its claim that these four regions are now and forever Russian territory. But this claim rings hollow, even by Moscow’s standards.
Apart from anything else, Russia doesn’t even occupy significant portions of these regions. And, since their formal annexation in September 2022 – which is not even recognized by Russia’s closest allies, including China and Iran – Russia has lost further territory.
And, while it may be progressing only slowly, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has chipped away at both actual Russian control of territory and the sense that the annexed regions are beyond the reach of Ukraine’s armed forces.
The elections, as far as Moscow is concerned therefore, also are intended to convey a degree of normality. These four regions and their residents are to be seen apparently participating in Russia’s political system.
This normalization, in turn, is important to justify the so-called “special military operation” – as the Kremlin prefers to call its illegal invasion of Ukraine – as a worthy cause in the defense of Russia.
Yet, these are not normal elections even by the warped standards that generally prevail in Russia in this regard.
Russia’s efforts to “passportize” the occupied territories and confer Russian citizenship on their occupants have made only modest progress. So the Kremlin issued a special decree allowing residents with Ukrainian citizenship but registration in the occupied territories to participate in the vote.
Meanwhile, Russian pressure on these residents continues unabated. People are leaned on to “apply” for Russian citizenship and then presented by Moscow as its “new citizens” who accept, and indeed enthusiastically embrace, the new and welcome reality of their acquisition by Russia.
Allowing non-citizens to vote and converting them to citizens does not, of course, legalize or legitimize the Russian occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory. But it normalizes it in the eyes of ordinary Russians living in Russia itself.
The likelihood is that it will, over time, have a similar effect in the occupied territories – especially in those areas that Russia captured back in 2014 and that have been under Russian control for nine years now.
With elections in these areas now, for the first time, conducted according to the Russian legal system, their predictable results will also extend the Kremlin’s control of the occupied territories.
In the proper Soviet-style of elections, all candidates were pre-approved by the government, so there is no political competition and hence no real choice for voters. Meanwhile, neither free media nor civil society groups have been able to monitor the election campaign or the counting of votes.
As a result, Moscow can rest assured that a slew of Kremlin loyalists will prevail in the elections and do its future bidding in administering these occupied territories. This seeks to convey a sense of local participation without the risk of any real dissent.
Slow road to liberation
These elections are unlikely to change the attitude of the Ukrainian government and its Western partners in terms of their declared goal.
That is to liberate all Russian-occupied territories and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in its internationally-recognized boundaries at the time of independence in 1991. This, however, is unlikely to be achieved any time soon.
Even the most optimistic assessments about the success of the current counteroffensive now estimate that Ukrainian forces are still some months away from reaching the Azov Sea by 2024. This is a central part of their strategy to disrupt Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.
It’s a key condition for liberating the peninsula and also for breaking Russia’s grip on the Donbas region. In light of the effective defense that Russia has mounted to hang onto its illegally annexed territories as seen against the insufficient military resources that Ukraine has, at present, to overcome well-entrenched Russian defense lines, neither of these two goals will be easy or quick to achieve.
At the same time, Kiev is taking a tougher line on its citizens who still live in the occupied territories. Iryna Vereschuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for the temporarily occupied territories, recently announced a review of social payments for Ukrainians living in those territories – with a view to stopping some of them, including pensions.
These steps are similar to measures taken after 2014 with respect to the self-declared so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. It’s a logical and understandable thing to do from the perspective of Ukraine’s government.
Yet for Ukrainians holding on to their citizenship in what is one of the few acts of defiance left to them, it also means payments from Russia – which are impossible to receive without Russian citizenship – will now be the only means of survival.
So, in different ways, Moscow and Kiev appear to be settling into the reality of a war that will continue for some time. Both sides are also settling into a normality of occupation, the human consequences of which will be the more difficult to reverse the longer it goes on.
Stefan Wolff, is a professor of international security at the University of Birmingham and Tetyana Malyarenko is a professor of international relations and the Jean Monnet professor of European security at the National University Odesa Law Academy.