Putin’s election in Ukraine under occupation relies on coercive voting with guns

Putin’s election in Ukraine under occupation relies on coercive voting with guns

Ukrainians in territories occupied by the Russian military are being forced to vote in the Russian presidential election under the watch of heavily armed, masked soldiers who are accompanying election officials going from house to house, knocking on doors as they seek to compel participation.

The staging of the election in occupied Ukraine is a violation of international law and Russia was condemned in a statement at the United Nations on Friday by Ukraine and 55 other nations for its “manifest disregard for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Yevheniia Hliebova, head of Novomykolaivka village military administration in Kherson region, who has left occupied territory, described it as an “election at gunpoint. That is, violence.”

Election officials were walking around Novomykolaivka, Hliebova said, “in a brigade accompanied by an armed soldier. He was carrying a weapon, so it was a threat, not verbal, but in fact it was a threat of violence.” Those who refused to vote were threatened with repercussions, she said.

The intimidation of Ukrainians under Russian military control to cast ballots in the presidential election mirrors the process in autumn of 2022 when residents were similarly forced at gunpoint to vote in illegal referendums on Russian annexation. Then, Russia in some cases even claimed to annex territory in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia that its military had not yet occupied. In other cases, Ukraine later ousted the occupiers but Moscow has not relinquished its claims, which followed Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Vladimir Putin, who has ruled as Russia’s supreme political leader since Dec. 31, 1999 — repeatedly finding ways to defy term limits to stay in power — is guaranteed to win the election, giving him another six-year term. The election, even for legitimate voters in Russia, offers no genuine democratic choice with the Kremlin blocking genuine opposition candidates from the ballot, controlling media coverage and, critics allege, falsifying results.

Constitutional changes engineered by Putin in 2020 enable him to rule potentially until 2036, but it is generally understood that he will remain in charge as long as he wants.

In Belgorod, Russian city hit hardest by war, Putin is still running strong

The forced vote is part of a broader process of Russification in occupied regions, including forced curriculum changes in schools, the torture, imprisonment and expulsion of pro-Kyiv figures, the installation of Kremlin puppet administrations, and requiring Ukrainians to sign up for Russian passports to function in daily life.

In Mariupol, the occupied city on the Azov Sea, on Saturday, voting took place two years after Russia’s March 16, 2022 bombing of the city’s drama theater, which killed hundreds of people sheltered there, despite a huge sign on the ground indicating that civilians, including children, were inside.

Russian state media, however, showed happy residents at a Mariupol polling station, which featured an exhibition of children’s drawings bearing slogans like “I’m a future voter” — part of Russia’s continued use of children for state propaganda and indoctrination, which has been a central feature of the war in occupied areas and in Russia.

One Mariupol resident interview by The Washington Post by phone said, “People couldn’t care less about the elections because everyone understands perfectly well that it’s elections without choice.” The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the risk of retribution by Russian authorities.

“There’s no rule of law, no courts, nothing. Everything is broken,” the person said. “Against this backdrop, the presidential elections are just some kind of crap.”

The resident said people were forced to apply for Russian identity documents to receive social payments since early in the occupation, but new rules now require them to have Russian documents for everything from property titles of homes to drivers’ licenses. Many people are anxious, amid rumors that anyone with Ukrainian documents could be evicted.

In a post on Telegram, Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, HUR, accused Russian forces of using “intimidation, bribery, and pressure” to force Ukrainians to vote.

Some Ukrainians who were being collared by election teams were asked to fill out ballots in front of pro-Kremlin election workers and soldiers — violating the principle of a secret ballot, a core tenet of democracy.

One woman in occupied Energodar, Zaporizhzhia region, was at her daughter’s apartment when she heard a knock on the door.

“It was two representatives from the polling station and two seeming military personnel in balaclavas with rifles, carrying ballot boxes,” the woman’s daughter, a former city council staffer who has fled the area, recounted. The woman and her daughter spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the safety of family members living under occupation.

“My mother had no intention of voting, but still, she was afraid to say so aloud,” the daughter said. Instead, the mother said she did not live at the apartment and would vote later.

Other Energodar residents told election officials and soldiers that they had already voted, “to which they replied, ‘No problem, you can vote again,’” the daughter said. Men who could not produce Russian passports were questioned and their apartments searched, she said.

Natalia Petrenko, head of the military administration for Shulhyne, an occupied village in Luhansk region said that election officials and soldiers were targeting vulnerable elderly pensioners in house-to-house visits. Petrenko has left the occupied area but is in touch with friends and family still living in the village.

Days before the election they visited the pensioners with gifts, Petrenko said, “and at the same time they told them that the commission will come to your home and you must put a mark for Putin.”

“A soldier in a balaclava came in with an automatic [weapon],” she said. “And now I just calmly imagine: an old woman is sitting, who remembers the Second World War, and a soldier with an automatic enters her house again.”

‘What will she write down [on the ballot] What will she do? There’s this fear of the gun, the weapon,” Petrenko added. “And they are on every corner.”

In this Ukrainian village, almost no men are left

Halyna, who last year fled her home in Kakhovka, an occupied city in the southern Kherson region, said she spoke this week to her niece, 32, who is still there and described two soldiers accompanying a woman with a ballot box going from house to house, claiming they were carrying out “preliminary voting” because of shelling.

“I wish these elections would pass quickly,” the niece told her aunt in a message reviewed by The Post, adding that Ukrainian artillery fire had given the Russians an excuse to force people to vote at home. “They’re aiming at the military,” she wrote, “But when those rockets fly over, it’s so terrifying. I cover my ears but fear still overwhelms me. And now, I’m crying again.”

As the forced voting was underway, successive Russian ballistic missile strikes on Friday hit the southern port city of Odessa, killing 21 people, including rescuers who had arrived to help after the initial explosion. Dozens more were injured and hospitalized.

Among the dead were a former deputy mayor of Odessa, Serhii Tetyukhin, and a former head of the Odessa regional police, Oleksandr Hostishchev, who was also the head of a National Guard regiment, officials said.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said on Friday that Russia’s pattern of holding sham elections in occupied Ukraine was a cynical attempt to “legitimize Putin’s illegal attempt at a land grab.”

“Let’s call this what this is,” she said. “It’s a blatant propaganda exercise.”

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, replied that “like it or not,” Russia was conducting “democratic elections on territories which administratively, politically and economically are part of our country.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that international bodies should no longer recognize Putin’s legitimacy and called for Russia’s suspension from global institutions.

In Berdyansk, an occupied Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov, a 72-year-old woman reached by phone said that election officials were going door to door, urging people to vote.” That’s how they’re trying to get a higher turnout,” the woman said. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

A 45-year-old woman in Berdyansk, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said three women with a ballot box accompanied by an armed soldier visited her home and others.” Those who didn’t vote at home, who they didn’t catch, have to go vote at the polling station,” she said. “Whether I’ll go or not is another question.”

As voting begins in Russian presidential election, so do the protests

Election workers in Mariupol told Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that the election was “peaceful,” and the agency broadcast interviews with voters who said they hoped that life would improve with the region as part of Russia.

RIA Novosti also quoted a pro-Kremlin official in Donetsk claiming that residents were voting in the recently Russian-seized city of Avdiivka, which was almost completely destroyed in fighting with most of the population displaced.

In Russia, the authorities have opened at least 15 criminal cases after a wave of protests at Russian polling stations during the first day of voting on Friday.

A voter was detained in Moscow’s Ramenki district on Saturday for writing “Putin is a murderer” on his ballot, RusNews reported, after a policeman saw his ballot.

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