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A New Potemkin Vote in Occupied Ukraine

In occupied Ukraine, upcoming elections highlight the Kremlin’s limited room for maneuver following its declared annexation of parts of Ukraine last year: a costly decision forcing it to pretend that everything is going according to plan.

Published on June 12, 2023

Amid the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Kremlin is seeking to shore up its position in occupied parts of Ukraine: not only militarily, but also politically, by preparing to hold elections there in September.

On the one hand, the vote is calculated to boost loyalty to Russia among locals and force them to participate in political life according to the laws of the occupier. On the other, it is meant to project confidence to Russians and signal that the war is going according to plan.

It would have been easy enough to indefinitely postpone elections in the occupied territories, citing the state of martial law, but the Kremlin is determined to proceed. The reasons are many, starting with the need to prove that it meant what it said when it declared that it was “here forever.” By restoring some “normalcy” in the area, Moscow also seeks to normalize the conflict; to show how little the war is affecting its territorial acquisitions; and to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter that Russia only has full control of the Luhansk region, while the other territories are only partially under its control.

In late 2022, the Russian Central Election Commission set about integrating the electoral authorities of Russia’s “new regions,” training their staff, and rolling out an electronic voting system already in place in Russia proper. Russian passport holders in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” (LNR and DNR) had already voted electronically in the 2021 State Duma elections as constituents from Russia’s Rostov region.

Right now, in occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, electoral commissions are being Russified, to the extent that half their members were directly appointed by the Central Election Commission this past February.

Meanwhile, locals are under increasing pressure to acquire Russian citizenship. In March, President Vladimir Putin simplified the procedure for renouncing Ukrainian citizenship. In April, he made it legal from next year to deport Ukrainians who refuse Russian citizenship. The September elections will test the success of this administrative assimilation—and the loyalty of Russia’s new citizens.

In Kyiv, Moscow’s rush to “passportize” occupied parts of Ukraine is a source of concern. The Ukrainian leadership’s hopes of a successful counteroffensive have been accompanied by serious thought on how to eventually reintegrate those areas currently under occupation, plus fierce debate on how to treat Ukrainians who became Russian nationals and where to draw the line between collaborator and victim of occupation. 

Kyiv has yet to clearly answer these questions. While the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets has advised those under occupation to accept Russian citizenship if necessary to protect themselves from reprisals, the position of the Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories is that naturalization is collaboration.

Back in Russia, United Russia expects to be the chief beneficiary of the upcoming elections. The names of denizens of occupied Ukraine appear on the party’s candidate lists, many of them public servants from the regions in question, including teachers, municipal officials, and entrepreneurs. In the Donbas, the candidates include members of the separatist elite of the LNR and the DNR.

Some names on the ballot will belong to those who have simply changed their colors, like Valery Burlachenko, a businessman from the Donetsk region who ran for office as a candidate of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party in 2020. Now he is running to represent United Russia, and using the same campaign photo to boot. Also on the ascendant are young separatist fighters-turned-politicians who came on the scene only after 2014, in a post-Crimea world.

However decorative the role of local legislatures in Russia’s political system may be, local elites value this avenue of career advancement. This is at once a sinecure, a place in the elite, and a step on the career ladder. 

For its part, the Kremlin is happy for locals to claim legislative seats, aware that it has not made much progress in replacing the functionaries of occupied Ukraine with Russian cadres. For all their references to the country’s “new regions,” officials in Russia know full well where its borders actually end and understand that a posting in Donbas, or worse still southern Ukraine, might end in death at the hands of partisans.

United Russia is not the only Russian party preparing to run in occupied Ukraine. So, too, are Russia’s “in-system” (i.e., represented in parliament) opposition parties. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) has had a deep bench in Donbas ever since Ukraine’s own Communist Party was outlawed in 2014. Its network of regional branches in occupied Ukraine succeeded the DNR and the LNR’s own communist parties (even though under separatist rule they never appeared on a ballot). In the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, KPRF chapters are taking shape. The LDPR is active here, too, its local efforts spearheaded by the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was recently released as part of a prisoner exchange after spending over a decade in U.S. custody.

Some of those recruited to run for office and assist with state-building in occupied Ukraine are heavy hitters from the pro-Russian parties of the old Ukraine, like Dmytro Tabachnyk, a United Russia candidate in the Zaporizhzhia region who served as chief of staff under then president Leonid Kuchma in the mid-1990s and was later an education minister under the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. For a political veteran like him, election to a regional parliament is something of a demotion. But the Ukraine in which Tabachnyk climbed the ranks no longer exists, and he remains ambitious.

Not content to wait for the Kremlin’s dream of a pro-Russian Ukraine to come true, others who made their names under Kuchma and Yanukovych have instead accepted appointments in the occupied territories, like Oleksandr Yakymenko, a Yanukovych-era security service (SBU) chief now doing battle with Ukrainian partisans in Kherson. Some have found jobs in Russia proper, among them Pavlo Lebedyev, a one-time Ukrainian defense minister currently serving as vice president of Russia’s largest business lobby group. 

For these careerists, the Russian system is a much safer bet than, say, the pro-Russian Other Ukraine movement, which has not attracted any big names from among pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians other than its leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who has no bright future of which to speak. 

The true context of the elections is that the Kremlin’s declared annexation of parts of Ukraine last year did not resolve a single problem created by the war. On the contrary, it precluded even the possibility of a temporary improvement in relations with Kyiv and ruled out anything resembling peace between the two.

Moscow’s annexation drive further limited its room for maneuver by depriving Russia of a buffer zone puppet state from which it could tactically distance itself and which it could use to muddy the waters of the conflict and present it as a civil war.

Instead, Putin and his allies opted for the crudest option available to them. It’s a choice that has left Russia with no alternative to a war of attrition and one hope: that Ukraine or its Western backers will blink first. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is forced to pretend that everything is going according to plan.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.