On September 10, 2023, in the Russian Federation, elections of various levels will take place, including by-elections to the State Duma, elections of heads of 26 regions (21 direct and 5 through parliamentary voting), legislators in 16 Russian federal subjects, as well as elections in 79 municipal units of the Russian occupation administrations in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, occupied by the Russian army. Holding elections in these occupied territories of Ukraine constitutes a gross violation of international law and an attempt to legitimize the occupation in the eyes of the international community.
The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine with the aim of its occupation ended in a complete failure for Putin. The "three-day" victorious war turned into a year and a half of bloody conflict in which the Russian army suffered its largest casualties since 1945 and lost a significant amount of military equipment. The so-called "Special Military Operation", which was essentially an aggressive war, debunked the myth of Russia being the "second army in the world," fighting with World War I-era tactics, and inflicted severe damage to Putin's image. The world became convinced that Russia is a colossus with feet of clay, asymmetrically weak despite its size. Consequently, the Kremlin has revised its policy in the occupied territories of Ukraine and aims to fully integrate them into the Russian Federation, eliminating all traces of Ukrainian identity. This is a deliberate and purposeful occupation of internationally recognized Ukrainian territory, and the elections on September 10 will echo last year's referendums and strengthen the Kremlin's oppressive rule over internationally recognized Ukrainian territories.
It goes without saying that terror and coercion will accompany the electoral process: acts of Ukrainian expression of will, taking place under Russian occupation, will occur at gunpoint. This will be similar to the events of September 23-27, 2022, when Putin, after conducting illegal referendums, declared parts of Ukraine's territory (portions of the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions) as new regions of the Russian Federation. During those events, members of the electoral commissions were forced to visit Ukrainian homes with ballot boxes, accompanied by armed forces, as local residents showed no desire to vote for joining Russia. This year, a similar scenario can be expected, and after the elections, repression against the residents of these occupied territories of Ukraine will intensify. Forced mobilization into the ranks of the Russian Armed Forces, deportation to economically backward and remote regions of Russia, adoption of Ukrainian children by Russian families, and the resettlement of Russians into the empty homes of deported local residents are just a few of the likely crimes that the occupation authorities will begin to commit against Ukrainians.
The Kremlin's crucial goal in these elections is the legitimization of this process in the eyes of the international community. To achieve this, Russia will involve international observers – a practice that was used during last year's referendums in Ukraine's occupied territories. Some of these observers repeated narratives from Russian propaganda in their comments, justifying the conduct of the referendums. These observers included Dragoslav Bokan from Serbia, Vanessa Billy from the United Kingdom, Elizio Bertolazi, Gianfranco Vestuto, and Gianantonio Micalessin from Italy, Thomas Röper and Christoph Hörstel from Germany, André-Michel-Claude Schanklé from France, Emmanuel Lerua, and others. Putin aims to create the appearance of Western consent for Russia's occupation of parts of Ukraine's territory and the subsequent freedom of action for the Kremlin in these areas. The presence of European observers at the elections in Ukraine's occupied territories will mark a shameful act of disunity not only with Ukraine but also with those EU countries that support Kyiv, and it will serve as a kind of "census" of controversial pro-Russian public figures in Europe.
The danger for the West in the context of elections in Ukraine's occupied territories lies in the fact that Putin is creating a precedent for changing borders that have been considered inviolable in Europe – a fact enshrined in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. The Kremlin not only disregards the norms and principles of international law but seeks to implement the practice of forcefully altering borders. This could lead to a series of wars and conflicts capable of destabilizing Europe with an influx of refugees and an associated socio-economic crisis. Putin's attempt to question existing borders in the post-Soviet space may, in turn, trigger changes to borders in Europe. Ignoring this threat will only bring it closer to the civilization of the West and make it more vulnerable to Russia.
Elections in the occupied territories of Ukraine violate the UN Charter, Ukraine's sovereignty, and territorial integrity. They affirm the impossibility of conducting peaceful negotiations with the Russian Federation until its troops are fully withdrawn from internationally recognized Ukrainian territory. The Russian Federation should face severe sanctions and international isolation – a logical response to Putin's attempts to occupy Ukraine's sovereign territory.