Sixty miles north-east of Melitopol, a Ukrainian counteroffensive is grinding laboriously through Russian-held territory, hoping to liberate regions from the grips of Moscow’s rule.
But in this city – one of the first captured by Russian forces after their invasion last February – another operation is in full swing. There is one key difference: everyone knows how this one is going to end.
Voting is underway in Russia-occupied eastern and southern Ukraine, as Moscow attempts to exert authority with elections the international community have widely dismissed as a sham.
Campaign material has apparently been dropped in from Russia to give the appearance of a proper contest. “It seems like there is nothing left in the city except the headquarters of (Russia’s ruling party) United Russia, the military and the billboards,” said a Melitopol resident in her early 30s who has refused to flee the city. CNN is referring to the woman by the pseudonym Baska, because of concerns for her safety.
As well as Putin’s party, there are billboards promoting the Communist party and Just Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya). “There is so much information noise that people simply do not have time to think for themselves,” she said.
The elections represent another attempt by Moscow to enforce a narrative of Russian legitimacy in the parts of Ukraine it holds – some but not all of Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Luhansk regions – even as Kyiv’s counteroffensive makes some progress towards liberating towns in the south.
Early voting has already been held in the occupied territories, and in-person polling was expected to start Friday and run until Sunday, according to Ukraine’s National Resistance Center (NRC), an official agency of the government in Kyiv, which has dismissed the elections as a propaganda exercise.
Kremlin-backed candidates, some of whom are running unopposed, are widely expected to be installed after the process.
“They just come and say ‘vote.’ So people vote,” Baska told CNN. “It has nothing to do with normal elections.”
She has not seen heavy-handed coercion to force people to take part. “Why? Because they don’t care who votes and how, they have already counted the results,” she said.
But reminders of the election are ever-present. “Here, when you buy a SIM card for your phone, you immediately get an SMS from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and United Russia Party,” Baska said. The text messages carry pro-Kremlin messaging, informing voters that “about 90% of voters are ready to vote for Yedianaya Rossiya (United Russia),” or that “United Russia is helping Zaporizhzhia region,” she added.
“In other words, the election results are already well known,” she said, predicting low turnout even among those in the city that support Russia. “People are generally apolitical, inert, and know who will win anyways.”
Kyiv and the West have poured scorn on the process, with the NRC urging Ukrainians to ignore any appeals to take part.
“Given that these ‘polling stations’ will be empty, the occupiers are preparing to create a propaganda picture,” the NRC said on Thursday. The agency predicted that people will “vote in an organized manner at certain polling stations under the supervision of pre-placed cameras of ‘journalists.’”
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday that the so-called elections further violated Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and the Council of Europe has labeled them “a flagrant violation of international law which Russia continues to disregard.”
“These territories are and will remain an integral part of Ukraine,” it said in a statement on Monday.
Russia held similar sham referendums in the four regions last year, in an attempt to project authority over the parts of Ukraine its troops had captured. The new round of elections is being held alongside local votes inside Russia.
The votes come as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority and the success of his campaign in Ukraine are increasingly scrutinized. Ukraine is “slowly gaining ground” in its counteroffensive despite weeks of “difficult” fighting, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told the European Parliament on Thursday. “This is heavy fighting, difficult fighting but they have been able to breach the defensive lines of the Russian forces. And they are moving forward,” the NATO chief said.
But in Melitopol, which lies south of the lines of the ground campaign, the realities of Russian control are taking hold. Guerrilla activity by Ukrainian partisans has taken place but is more difficult to achieve now, Baska told CNN.
“Most people are tired of waiting, they realize that there will be no liberation this year, and maybe not even next year. So more and more are looking for opportunities to leave,” she said.
While Melitopol was struck earlier in the year by Ukrainian missile attacks on Russian targets, recently things have been quiet. “People here do not feel the war. If last year almost every person standing at the queue at the market was talking about Mariupol or Crimea, now people have different feelings,” she added. “There are now fewer local people in the city than newcomers … soon there will be a complete replacement of the local population (by Russians), it feels like.”
Street combat has been replaced by exhibitions depicting Russian greatness, such as one in a park whose entrance is patrolled by armed troops.
Few residents in Melitopol are interested in the bogus elections taking place, Baska told CNN. But to Moscow, the votes across occupied Ukraine are another tool through which to enforce control – even if international observers are unmoved.
“For the first time we are electing local self-government bodies under Russian law,” the head of the so called Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin wrote on Telegram Friday, calling the elections “a vote for the Russian Donbas.”
It comes alongside an effort to force residents in the regions to accept Russian citizenship, according to a report released last month by the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab.
Moscow’s official agencies have touted the progress of the early voting window in recent days, during which house-to-house visits were made by members of precinct election commissions, according to Russia’s governing United Russia party.
Voting also took place at “extraterritorial” polling stations in Russia. There is no way to confirm the official figures released by Russian authorities, and no international observers of the polling.
Yuriy Sobolevskyi, deputy head of Kherson region council, covering part of the territory Ukraine regained in its counteroffensive last year, told CNN that the elections had “nothing to do with democracy or free expression of will. What is happening now is a show that they call elections in order to create a propaganda narrative.”
“The emphasis in these elections is on door-to-door work, when two collaborators accompanied by armed men from the Russian Guard, police, and in some cases the military, go from house to house in the settlements. They visit every house in the settlements and actually force people to vote under psychological pressure,” Sobolevskyi said.
“We know that they have brought in a number of ‘artists’ to give interviews to propagandists, pretending to be locals who have been waiting for Russia for a long time and are now excited about the elections.”