Secretary of State Antony Blinken leveled the charge during a U.N. Security Council meeting following a presentation from an international investigator who likewise questioned “the transfer of populations from Ukraine [to] outside — particularly children.” Blinken linked the movement of people to Putin’s initiative to stage so-called referenda, an ersatz political process designed to formalize Russia’s assertion of sovereignty over the partially occupied territories.
“It is even more alarming when coupled with the filtration operation that Russian forces have been carrying out across parts of Ukraine that they control,” Blinken told the council. “Now, this is a diabolical strategy, violently uprooting thousands of Ukrainians, bus in Russians to replace them, call a vote, manipulate the results to show near unanimous support for joining the Russian Federation.”
The impending referenda will take place between Sept. 23 and Sept. 27, just a few days after their scheduling was announced. The putative votes will ensure that “a geopolitical transformation of the world will become irreversible,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a member of the Russian Security Council under Putin, wrote Monday in a Telegram post.
The four-day process will be constrained by the fact that the four regions Russia plans to break away from Ukraine remain the scene of heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
“In-person voting will take place exclusively on September 27, while on the other days, voting will be organized in communities and in a door-to-door manner for security reasons,” according to TASS, a Russian state media outlet.
Russian officials raced toward the "referenda" following a startling counteroffensive from Ukraine, which reclaimed substantial swathes of territory around Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine while putting pressure on Russian forces drawn into a difficult position near Kherson in southeast Ukraine.
“We know what Vladimir Putin is doing. He is planning to fabricate the outcome of those referenda,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said during his address to the council. "He is planning to use that to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory. And he is planning to use it as a further pretext to escalate his aggression.”
Some of the “voting” will take place as far away as Moscow, according to state media. “The Kherson Region’s residents will have the opportunity to vote in Crimea and a number of Russian cities, including Moscow, apart from their home region, where eight territorial and 198 district election commissions have been created,” TASS reported.
Kherson is one of the regions where a Ukrainian counteroffensive is making steady advances, as a pro-Russian analyst recently acknowledged.
“They don't have physical control of most of these places, which is what makes this so venal and desperate,” a senior State Department official said this week.
Putin launched the current attempt to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who took office in 2019 after defeating an incumbent president, in February after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine. That conflict began in 2014 when Putin’s high-profile veto of a Ukrainian plan to sign an economic agreement with the European Union prompted a political crisis. The pro-Russian president of Ukraine fled the country after the shooting of protesters in Kyiv, and Ukrainian lawmakers voted to remove him from office.
Russian forces were sent into Crimea to wrest control of that strategically valuable peninsula, and a similar outbreak of violence erupted in Donbas, to the surprise of local residents. Russian officials, over the years, portrayed the fighting as a civil war, although Putin admitted to lying about the deployment of out-of-uniform Russian forces into Crimea.
“Russian-speaking citizens do not support the Russian army — [they] support the Ukrainian," a 16-year-old refugee from the Donbas, Evgen Revun, told the Washington Examiner in March.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who arrived late to the council meeting and then left after delivering his remarks, insisted that Russian forces are fighting a racist Ukrainian central government on behalf of the residents of the Donbas region, whom he insisted have been persecuted by Zelensky and previous Ukrainian leaders.
“Such outrages ... remain unpunished because the United States and their allies, with the connivance of international human rights institutes, have been covering up the crimes of the Kyiv regime based on the policy of ‘Zelensky might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard,'” Lavrov said. “The inconvenient truth that darkens the image of Ukraine as the victim of Russian aggression is carefully hushed up and sometimes deleted.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba argued that Putin feels “impunity” to launch such a war due to his possession of nuclear weapons and Russia’s ability to veto resolutions at the Security Council.
“We need to ensure that behavior like this is punishable,” Kuleba told the council after Lavrov’s premature departure. “Otherwise, every force in the world — every evil force in the world — will be tempted to follow in Russia's footsteps. I don't need to remind anyone at this table how many forces on the planet would like to question borders. ... If Russia can do this, why can’t they? We're talking not only about Ukraine and Russia. The global security crisis we all face is so much larger.”