Sabotage attempts reported at polling stations in occupied Ukraine as Russia holds local elections

Russian authorities on Sunday reported multiple attempts to sabotage voting in local elections taking place in occupied areas of Ukraine.

Polls have now closed after local elections were held over the weekend in 79 regions of Russia, with ballots for governors, regional legislatures, city and municipal councils, as well as in the four Ukrainian regions Moscow annexed illegally last year — the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia provinces — and on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014.

Balloting in the occupied areas of Ukraine has been denounced by Kyiv and the West as a sham and a violation of international law.

Russian electoral officials on Sunday reported attempts to sabotage voting in the occupied regions, where guerrilla forces loyal to Kyiv had previously killed pro-Moscow officials, blown up bridges and helped the Ukrainian military by identifying key targets.

A drone strike destroyed one polling station in the Zaporizhzhia province hours before it opened on Sunday, deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission Nikolai Bulaev told reporters. He said no staff were at the station at the time of the attack.

Ella Pamfilova, who heads Russia's Central Election Commission, called the incident “a terrorist act" while speaking to reporters that same day, alleging that a Western-supplied drone was used but giving no evidence.

A Russian-appointed official in the neighboring Kherson region said that a live grenade was discovered on Saturday near a polling station there. According to Marina Zakharova, the grenade was hidden in bushes outside the station, and voting had to be halted while emergency services disposed of it.

Denis Pushilin, the acting head of the Russian-occupied parts of the Donetsk region, also said in a statement Sunday that polling station staff there had been “wounded and injured," without giving details.

Moscow has partially occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia since early in the war, while parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were overrun by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. Ukrainian forces have since retaken Kherson's namesake local capital, and are pressing a counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia that has been making slow progress.

Local residents and Ukrainian activists have alleged that Russian poll workers make house calls accompanied by armed soldiers in both provinces, detaining those who refuse to vote and pressuring them into writing “explanatory statements" that could be used as grounds for a criminal case.

In Russia itself, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s seat is up for grabs, although he is running for re-election again and is unlikely to lose a race in which all contenders come from Kremlin-backed parties. Sobyanin was appointed mayor in 2010 and has since won mayoral elections twice: in 2013, despite now-imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny running against him, and 2018. Governors in 20 other Russian regions are also vying for office this year.

In 16 Russian regions, voters are casting ballots for local legislatures. There are also multiple votes for city and municipal councils across the country and races for a few vacant seats in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.

In the majority of the Russian regions and in the occupied regions of Ukraine, polls opened on Friday and the voting lasts for three days, concluding Sunday. In other regions, voters can only cast their ballot on Sunday.

In over 20 Russian regions, including Moscow, online voting has been enacted, despite wide criticism by opposition figures who say it lacks transparency and could easily be rigged. It has also been made available in Crimea.

Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said in a separate statement Sunday that more than 3 million Russians in 25 regions have voted online.

Igor Borisov, a member of the commission, told reporters hours later that about 30,000 cyber attacks on the online voting system had been repelled by Sunday evening, many of them originating in “unfriendly" states - a term used by Moscow to describe Ukraine and its Western allies.

Russian Telegram channels reported on Sunday that two state news agencies, RIA Novosti and Tass, earlier that day announced preliminary results of a gubernatorial election in northeastern Siberia more than 20 minutes before polls were due to close. The original RIA and Tass reports could not be retrieved, but Russia’s Central Elections Commission shortly later acknowledged the incident, which took place in the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, and blamed an IT error.

A Russian interior ministry official, Mikhail Davydov, late on Sunday told Tass that authorities observed no irregularities that could sway the election results.

There are hardly any exciting races, notes political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, mainly because “the most important issue in Russian politics — the issue of war and peace — is not on the agenda at all.”

“The voter feels that, the voter sees that it’s not interesting,” Gallyamov, who once worked as a speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told The Associated Press in an interview.

He said no one wants to campaign in favor of the war because it is not popular and it would affect their poll ratings. At the same time, it is impossible to campaign against the war because "you will be barred from running, thrown in jail and named the enemy of the country. So all candidates avoid this issue.

"The voters feel that the elections are not about what is actually real and important. The turnout will be minimal. These are empty elections,” Gallyamov said.