The United States said Tuesday that First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Office Sergey Kiriyenko (R) was overseeing efforts to hold referenda in Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine. Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/EPA-EFE
Aug. 31 (UPI) — The U.S. State Department said the Kremlin is preparing to hold “sham” referenda to annex Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine, warning that Moscow will employ propaganda and disinformation campaigns, falsify voter turnout and exaggerate the percentage of Ukrainians who want to join Russia to conduct its illegal land grab.
The United States has previously warned that Moscow was moving forward to hold elections to disguise its annexation of Ukrainian regions, but State Department Principal Deputy spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters for first time Tuesday that the effort was being overseen by Sergey Kiriyenko, the first deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration.
Kiriyenko was sanctioned by the United States on Feb. 22, days before the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin recognizing the Russia-separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent.
In the sanctioning announcement, the U.S. Treasury described Kiriyenko as “Putin’s domestic policy curator.”
On Tuesday, Patel said “Kiriyenko is responsible for overseeing the Russia-held territories in advance of their attempted incorporation into Russia.”
Patel warned the referenda “could take place in the coming weeks” not only in Donetsk and Luhansk but also Kherson, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia, which is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant currently occupied by Russian forces.
“These sham referenda will attempt to give a veneer of legitimacy to a blatant land grab that would violate the Ukrainian constitution and international law, including the U.N. Charter, and contravene principles of the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe],” he said.
Seemingly to undercut Russia efforts to move forward with these referenda, Patel said they want to be clear that any Kremlin claim that Ukrainians want to join Russia is a lie.
As proof, he pointed to early May polling data from the National Democratic Institute that states only 3% of Ukrainians would like their country to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union while 90% want to join the European Union.
He said “it will be critical” to counter Kremlin propaganda stating Ukrainians want to join Russia in the weeks and months ahead as the United States expect the results of these referenda to be predetermined in Moscow — a plan that he described as “a part” of Russia’s playbook on attacking Kyiv’s sovereignty.
“The people of Ukraine and the world will not be fooled by this mockery of a process,” Patel said. “We stand by the people of Ukraine and their democratically elected government.”
Russia has previously held a referendum in Ukrainian territory.
In 2014, one was held to approve of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and which was rejected by the United States as illegitimate.
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