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The Kherson “referendum” sham: out of the Kremlin’s hybrid war playbook

Kherson protest against Russian occupation Ukraine
After the takeover of cities of Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast by Russian troops, locals came out to protests on a daily basis. However, after the occupiers started dispersing them with weapons, cases of resistance became rarer. Photo: Suspilne
The Kherson “referendum” sham: out of the Kremlin’s hybrid war playbook
Article by: Zarina Zabrisky
Russia is planning to stage a sham “referendum” in the south-Ukrainian region of Kherson to declare the region a “Kherson People’s Republic.” Such staged “plebiscites” are one of its favorite instruments from the hybrid war playbook, and the Kremlin plans a series of these “referenda” in other Ukrainian regions to legitimize its military presence in Ukraine.

In occupied Kherson, the Kremlin plans to hold a pseudo-referendum to declare the region the so-called “Kherson People’s Republic.”

Scheduled for April 27, a workday, it is expected to show “a pre-approved result.”

After Russian troops occupied Kherson in early March, locals kept coming out to protest

Ukraine will withdraw from any negotiation process with the Russian Federation if a “referendum” on Kherson People’s Republic is held, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a press conference on April 23.

“The organization of pseudo-referendums in the occupied settlements of Ukraine shows that the invader did not abandon the idea of creating Novorossia [‘New Russia’] in Ukraine. By creating new ‘republics,’ the aggressor intends to legitimize its military presence on the territory of our state,” said the ex-Deputy Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons Heorhiy Tuka.

He added that the Kremlin will follow the Luhansk and Donetsk scenario.

The March 2014 Crimean referendum was cited by the Kremlin as justification for the annexation. The May 2014 referendums on the status of the Donbas region were used to legitimize the status of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Ukraine called the referendums a “criminal farce” and the EU, US, and the UK condemned them as illegal.

Referendums: a hybrid war tool

A staged “independence referendum” is one of the Kremlin’s favorites from the hybrid war toolbox.

The Russian secret service has a long history of funding separatist groups and movements around the world.

“Encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social, and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements — extremist, racist, and sectarian groups” to “destabilize internal political processes” is the foundation of the Kremlin’s guiding principle.

In the last decades, Moscow had backed separatists movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in Georgia and in the Transnistria region in Moldova; supported anti-NATO Montenegro and Slovakia referendums and Catalonia’s independence referendum.

The Russia Report by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee investigated the Kremlin-inspired interference in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the Brexit referendum in 2016.

In the US, the Kremlin supported Californian and Texas separatists. In 2016, Russia hosted and sponsored a Western secession movements conference, attended by separatists groups from Texas, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Catalonia, and Italian secessionists.

The Russian element behind California’s separatism movement

In 2020, in the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, in power for more than 20 years, extended his tenure until 2036 through a political spectacle he called a "national referendum."

Step one: Brainwashing

Russian propagandists started preparations ahead of the invasion.

In 2021, research showed that in 21 settlements in Kherson Oblast, Ukrainian TV channels were not available but up to 20 Russian TV channels broadcasted their programs, aggressively pushing the Kremlin narratives.

Ukrainian television channels have been turned off in Kherson but people watch them on the Megogo Internet TV platform. However, the young people fled the occupation, and the elderly, who perceive TV as the ultimate truth, have a harder time resisting the Russian propaganda,” said A., a Kherson resident, in an interview.

Currently, the Nova Kakhovka print is producing propagandist brochures, posters, and “ballots” for the “referendum.” The invaders push the idea of the “Russian world” and spread disinformation about the south of Ukraine welcoming “liberators.”

Yet, the chairman of the Kherson Oblast Military Administration Hennadiy Laguta believes that no one will show up.

No one supports this idea, maybe a few collaborators and traitors, who, unfortunately, exist anywhere. The city of Kherson is an integral part of Ukraine,” said a Kherson resident in an interview.

Step two: falsifying the results

Locals are convinced that there will be no real voting, just the “Potemkin village” polling stations to create visuals for the Russian media.

To falsify the results, the Russian occupational regime plans to use personal data of the Kherson region residents, collected during the distribution of humanitarian aid, informs the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. To receive food, residents had to fill out personal information questionnaires.

Referendums at times of war and martial law are illegal in Ukraine. The results of this “referendum” will have no legal consequences, writes Olga Aivazovska, Chair of the OPORA Civic Network.

Referendums galore

The Russian Federation regime prepares a series of such referendums to legalize the occupation administrations in multiple regions.

The invaders are preparing a “referendum” in Snihurivka, Mykolaiv Oblast. Residents are urged to vote for the election of a new mayor and administrative accession to Crimea. The Kremlin-funded propaganda channel RT (Russia Today) posted a video of one such vote: about a hundred senior citizens in the village of Rozivka, Zaporizhzhia region, unanimously and silently raise their hands in favor of joining the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Zarina Zabrisky

Zarina Zabrisky is an award-winning American author of five books published internationally, including the novel “We, Monsters” and three short story collections, and journalist. She is a regular contributor to Byline Times, and contributed to Indivisible Movement, Crossing Genres, Digital Left, and elsewhere.


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