Starting this weekend, people in four occupied regions of Ukraine will “vote” on whether to join Russia. For many people, including my aunt and uncle, in Donetsk, what that really means is they will be forcibly absorbed into a country they do not want to be a part of.
Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in the south, are all at least partly occupied by Russia. The point of holding referendums in these places is to lend an air — however thin — of legitimacy to their annexation. Though of course, when Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, declared Russia’s support for the referendums, which had been announced earlier this week, he talked about “liberation.”
It’s not the first time that Mr. Putin has suggested he is liberating people like my aunt and uncle, and it’s no truer now than it has been in the past.
Ever since 2014, when Russia-backed separatists took control of Donetsk, one of the biggest cities in Ukraine, and declared it the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” talk of joining Russia has come in waves. Many residents have left, but those who didn’t — many of them older people who had nowhere to go — knew that living in a republic that was recognized by only Russia, North Korea and Syria, and under constant shelling, was unsustainable. Views on whether the city should become part of Russia, however, varied widely. Some coveted Russian citizenship because they saw Russia as a stronger, richer country with better jobs and higher pensions. Others, like my aunt and uncle, who have lived in Donetsk their whole lives, wanted the region to go back to Ukraine. [Continue reading…]