Vladimir Putin has just signed a document claiming to annex four Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. Days before, Russia purported to hold “referendums” in these areas, with hastily staged “voting,” in some cases at gunpoint.
Just like the so-called referendum in Crimea in 2014, they hold no legal value and don’t provide a basis for annexation or transfer of sovereignty.
Russia remains an occupying power in these regions bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which continues to protect civilians in those areas. In particular, if Russian authorities conscript civilians from these areas, as they’ve been doing in occupied Crimea and occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they’ll be committing new war crimes.
War crimes under Russian occupation are nothing new. From the start of the occupation, Russian authorities have been suppressing dissent through widespread intimidation, including torture and enforced disappearances. I’ve interviewed dozens of civilians from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, who shared horrific accounts of beatings, electric shocks, and incommunicado detention at the hands of Russian forces. Many were locked up for days or weeks, blindfolded, with their hands tied.
Russian propaganda, predictably, claims people overwhelmingly “voted” to join Russia. Even if there were some genuine supporters, this does not give the process any legal value. Moreover, Ukrainians I spoke to paint a very different picture. Alexey Koshel, the head of Ukraine’s Committee of Voters, described to me how poll workers carried ballots door-to-door accompanied by armed soldiers: “Imagine … [f]our armed men walk into your flat. You have to vote to join Russia, at gunpoint. If you refuse or vote ‘no’, you’ll be doing it right in front of them, they can see what you put on the ballot.”
Several people told me about their experiences over the phone. “Today’s the second day of the pseudo-referendum. It’s morally exhausting … We’re in hiding and intend to hide for the next three days,” a woman from Kherson said. A panic-stricken man in Zaporizhzhia region said: “We’re afraid ... My uncle said that I have to open the door when they come, or the neighbors might report [me]. I will have to tick a box for Russia, or they might tear down my house.”
These sham votes have no legal value but have grave consequences for civilians. The United Nations and numerous governments have rightly condemned Russia’s actions, and it is vital they continue to make all efforts to secure civilians' protection and ensure those responsible for war crimes are held to account.