Letter From the Editors

Referendums on the question of incorporation into Russia were held in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, and Kherson and Zaporozhye Provinces this week. Pro-Russian media and propogandists trumpeted the plebiscites as a success, with official turnout ranging from almost 79% in Kherson Province to a whopping 97.51% in the DPR, and votes in favor of incorporation reaching a jaw-dropping 99.23% in the DPR. Impressive numbers, if true.

Novaya gazeta Europe’s Nadezhda Isayeva, who questions the legitimacy of the referendums, says they were held “at gunpoint.” Citing reports in Ukrainian media calling the high turnout and high percentage of yes votes the result of “massive falsification,” Isayeva calls the presence of foreign observers a “gag” that cannot be taken seriously. She also says that people who voted against incorporation were arrested or added to “special lists.” Comparing the current plebiscites to the 2014 Crimea referendum, Isayeva points out that the previous vote had at least a semblance of real support and helped boost Putin’s approval rating. The 2022 referendums, however, “are not a symbol of power, but a sign of defeat,” according to expert Ivan Preobrazhensky.

Meanwhile, the referendums were roundly condemned by Ukrainian President Zelensky and Western leaders. After Putin signed a decree recognizing Zaporozhye and Kherson Provinces as sovereign and independent territories, Zelensky called the referendums a “farce” and an “imitation.” He also announced his intention to continue efforts to drive Russian forces out of the occupied territories and said that he was perfectly willing to hold talks with Russia – when it has a different leader. For its part, the West imposed an eighth package of sanctions on Russia, with Brussels stating: “The nuclear threats made by the Kremlin, the military mobilization and the strategy of seeking to falsely present Ukraine’s territory as Russia’s and purporting that the war may now be taking place on Russia’s territory will not shake our resolve.”

Speaking of nuclear threats, this week Meduza looks at the likelihood of Putin actually using nuclear weapons in the Ukrainian conflict. In a conversation with the outlet, Maksim Starchak, an expert on Russia’s nuclear policy, commented that the recent mobilization is probably a sign that Putin is unlikely to launch a nuclear weapon. And even though he acknowledged that Putin is “not necessarily a rational actor,” he did say that “for a person who’s worried about his health, interested in attaining eternal youth, and still expects everyone who meets with him to go through a quarantine period, [a nuclear strike] is [likely] too big a risk.”

Another wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, once intoned, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” From what we have seen, this is hardly the case in Ukraine. In an essay published by Meduza, Arseny Kumankov, a Russian philosopher and professor, argues that Russians have a moral obligation not to become “complicit in this aggressive, unjust war” because the Russian government has broken its social contract with the Russian people by violating its core concept of reciprocity. According to him, “The state must safeguard the security and prosperity of its citizens, while the citizens must sacrifice some of their freedoms, obey the law, pay taxes and participate in their country’s defense.” These mutual obligations uphold the contract’s legitimacy, but the whole structure falls apart when one side doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Kumankov concludes. “Maybe this time, society is finally realizing it doesn’t owe anything to an institution that doesn’t hold up its own end of the bargain.” So while Putin was able to pull off a stunning – if sham – victory at the polls in a foreign country, what Russians will do when it’s their turn to rock the vote at home is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Putin’s violation of the social contract will finally prove too much this time around.