Russia claims Indian ‘observer’ attended Ukraine referendum

Russia has claimed that a representative from India was present among international observers who oversaw the highly disputed referendum in the Donbass region of Ukraine.

In a widely circulated message on Telegram channels, a Russian official said: “Representatives from Great Britain, Germany, Syria, Togo, Spain, Colombia, South Africa, Ghana, Serbia, India, Iceland and Latvia worked at polling stations in Donetsk and Makeevka.”

The Indian representative was identified as Purnima Anand who visited Donbass as “an observer from India” for the referendum, even though Delhi is yet to declare its position on the voting to annex Ukrainian territories.

On her return to Moscow, Ms Anand spoke to a state-run news agency, vouching that the voting was “fair and transparent without any pressure on the people to participate”. She said she saw people “dancing and singing” and they “showed self-interest” in participating in the referendum.

The presence of an Indian representative in the referendum that other countries have rejected as “sham” and “undemocratic” voting at gunpoint, is expected to cause controversy and a diplomatic row as Delhi expressed renewed concerns over the situation and urged Russia and Ukraine to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty.

In a state TV broadcast, Ms Anand appeared to validate Russia’s claims, saying: “In the western media, they tell us that people are forced at gunpoint (to vote). We are here today and we can see for ourselves that the people, whole families with smiles on their faces, are coming to exercise their inalienable right to vote for joining Russia.

“People are happy, hope shines in their eyes for a peaceful, long-awaited future as part of Russia. And we for our part, understand that after this referendum, the world will become brand new, because now a new history is being created in Donbas.”

She was identified as the president of the BRICS International Forum (BRICS-IF) and International Federation of Indo-Russian Youth Clubs (IFIRYC), a position not recognised by Indian officials.

India has not yet issued a formal statement on its representation in Russia.

However, officials who were closely following the developments of India, told The Hindu newspaper that the Indian government did not send any “authorised participant in the referendum as either representative or to observe”.

The person, who was not identified, said: “There is no organisation under the BRICS as BRICS International Forum (BRICS-IF). All organisations under BRICS are inter-governmental organisations and BRICS-IF is not listed under BRICS initiatives.”

Ms Anand urged the Indian government to not object to her presence in the referendum, citing the country’s relations with a “time-tested friend”.

India’s stance on the ongoing ballot by Russian authorities to annex Ukrainian territory will be the latest test for its diplomacy in the war where it has largely taken a neutral stance so far.

The so-called referendums were held in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and as well as in Zaporozhye and Kherson regions from 23-27 September.

These four regions represent around 15 per cent of Ukraine — an area the size of Hungary — according to the Reuters news agency.

The foreigners deployed by Russian authorities in these regions have been regularly cited by Russian state media as witnesses to what it claimed as fair ballots.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi expressed his displeasure over the war in Ukraine directly with Vladimir Putin at their face-to-face meeting in Uzbekistan, saying it was not the era of war. It was also India’s first mention of Ukraine’s invasion as war.

India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar said New Delhi will articulate its position on the referendum at the UN and said he will wait to see what “our ambassador there has to say”.

Russia appeared poised annex a swath of Ukraine within days as it said locals voted overwhelmingly in favour of becoming part of Russia and the turnout was significant. Moscow could announce incorporation of four partially occupied regions on 4 October, three days before Mr Putin’s 70th birthday.