Bthe only operating store in alakliia was packed. Residents who had spent six months under Russian occupation lined up to buy bread, salami and frozen mackerel. “When the Russians came, I lost 10 kilos. My wife lost eight kilos. There was almost nothing to eat for the first two months,” recalls one customer, Valery. Showing off his small size, he joked grimly, “That’s the advantage of Moscow rule.”
Russian troops arrived in Balaklia in March. It was shortly after Vladimir Putin’s invasion. They raised a Russian tricolor above the city’s modern brick administration building and parked their tanks in a sprawling factory. Two weeks ago, the Ukrainian army drove them out in a dramatic counter-offensive. Kyiv has recovered almost all of the Kharkiv region, an area half the size of Wales.
The Kremlin had planned to hold a sham referendum in northeastern Ukraine, with its pine forests and sunflower fields. As things stand, the “vote” is taking place this weekend in the areas that Russia still occupies. They include most of the southern Kherson region, only a third of Zaporizhzhia Oblast and large parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, two eastern provinces partially ruled by Russia and its proxies since 2014.
Over the summer, the Russian presidential administration suspended preparations to hold pseudo-votes on Ukrainian territory. It was because of a lack of support. They were hastily revived last week after the incredible military setbacks of the Russian army. Putin reacted by announcing a partial mass mobilization in his country, intended to recruit up to a million men for his floundering campaign.
Next week Putin will announce the “results”. To no one’s surprise, they will show an overwhelming mandate for these new territories to join Moscow. The United States, the European Union and even the democratic world have condemned this exercise as illegal and meaningless, especially because many inhabitants have fled. And also ridiculous – with a fake vote in the middle of a big, thunderous battle.
Nonetheless, the referendum allows Putin to redefine what is essentially a 19th-century-style war of imperial conquest. It is recast as a defensive operation, patriotic in nature, and essential to protect a now larger homeland from outside attack. There is also a threat to drop nuclear weapons on Ukraine and perhaps on its Western supporters, if the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy tries to retake new “Russian” lands.
Ukrainians reacted calmly to Putin’s latest ploy. Zelenskiy’s senior adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, described the election as a ridiculous “propaganda show” aimed only at Russian viewers. His aim was to build support for the ‘Z Mobilization’, he said, as thousands of serving-age men scrambled to leave the country, booked flights and lined up at borders with Georgia and Finland.
Residents of Balakliia told the Observer that Moscow had been carefully preparing the “referendum” for some time. With few shops and no way to withdraw cash, the town’s 15,000 residents were forced to rely on Russian aid. Humanitarian aid was available. But there was a catch: to receive it, the inhabitants had to give their address, and hand over their passport and their Ukrainian identification number.
“They photocopied everything. It was a ploy to get hold of your personal data,” Valery explained. “In return, you received a packet of spaghetti and canned beef.”
Russia’s FSB spy agency was thus able to compile a very accurate list of citizens of occupied communities – which could then be used for election manipulation and other purposes. “Russia has a lot of experience since Stalin in falsifying its results,” Valery observed.
He added: “Putin knows he is a war criminal and is trying to keep his throne. That’s why he mobilized. He does not believe that Ukraine is a state and he wants to “de-nation” us. Was the Russian leader crazy? “Something like that. I hope for a coup d’etat. He needs to be judged by God and by men,” he said. “There is a special place in hell for him. He reminds me Louis de Funesthe French comedian who made funny faces.
Around the corner from Balakliia’s pink-painted shop was a large crater left by a Grad missile. He landed in May next to a five-story building on Sobornaya Street, which had previously been named after Lenin. Alexander Bayev, a pensioner who lives in the block, said the blast killed his 65-year-old neighbor Vasily, who was sitting outside on a wooden bench.
“He staggered to the entrance but didn’t make it,” Bayev said, pointing to blood on the steps. The blast blew out the windows of all surrounding apartments, shredded balconies and overturned a car in a children’s playground. Only 15 residents remained, he said, of the approximately 250 before the war. He said he wasn’t really looking forward to winter. “We are Ukrainians, not Russians,” he stressed. “I hope Putin croaks. His guys came and destroyed everything.
At the time of Balakliia’s release, Russia’s project in what might be called state-building was well advanced. A pro-Putin weekly, Kharkiv Z, was distributed to residents, using the Russian spelling of Kharkiv. A photo on the front page showed a Moscow official visiting a bread factory. A 14-year-old pupil, Maxim Borisenko, said his teacher told him that his lessons from September would be taught according to a new Russian curriculum.
Despite these propaganda measures, local support for annexation was extremely limited, residents said. “When our boys arrived, we celebrated with champagne. I had hidden a bottle for this moment,” said Natalia Sergeyevna. vote. No one here wants Russia. What would happen now? “Our president is smart. We’re going to take it all back,” she predicted.
Voting for the sham referendum began on Friday. A video showed Russian soldiers in balaclavas escorting “election” workers carrying ballot boxes. According to Telegram messages from Russian-controlled towns, officials went house to house, forcing some people to vote. They targeted elderly people who received Russian pensions, as well as anyone who registered for humanitarian goods.
Serhii Haidai, head of the Luhansk region’s military administration, said the poll was a farce. There was no privacy, with paperwork filled out in the open in homes and yards, he said. If the inhabitants refused to open their doors, “commissioners” threatened to break in. The names of those who vote “no” are recorded in a notebook, he said, the exercise serving as a pretext to identify men of military age.
Russia’s next apparent terrorist tactic is to conscript Ukrainians in occupied areas to fight their own army. In his last speech, Zelenskiy urged the men to sabotage Putin’s war effort from within, if he is conscripted, or to flee to government-controlled areas. It’s almost impossible. From the beginning of the summer, only women were allowed to leave Balakliia, via a crossing at the Pechenihy reservoir, about 70 km away.
Currently, Balakliia has no electricity or gas. Andriy, a Ukrainian soldier, went to the city’s train station on Saturday to charge his phone from a public generator, available four hours a day. He said he and his regiment would continue to fight regardless of the “outcome” or whatever Putin does next. “Our task is to liberate our territory. We will gradually expel the Russians. I’m sure of it,” he said.
In the meantime, there is little chance that the war will end soon. Kyiv has made it clear that it will not negotiate if Moscow annexes large areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. He promised to restore the country’s sovereign borders. This includes Crimea, the peninsula that Russia stole in 2014, and where ethnic Tatars known for their pro-Ukrainian views are now cynically drafted.
Ukrainian citizens who vote for annexation – for whatever reason – can expect judgment. A pensioner from Balakliia, Lionia, said he was diabetic. When his insulin ran out, he asked the Russians for help. “When I got the medicine, they took my picture and put it in their pig diary. Then they left. My neighbors came and beat me and my wife,” he said, adding sadly, “What choice did I have?
On Saturday, Ukrainian soldiers made further progress. They were near the town of Liman in Donetsk Oblast, and were slowly but surely advancing towards the southern regional capital of Kherson, the target of another counter-offensive. More than ever after the successes of this month, they believe in victory. “Yes, Russia is a colossus. But look at his feet. They are made of clay,” Valery said.