Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine began voting in referendums to join Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that raises the stakes of invading Moscow seven months after the fighting began.
The referendums, which are illegal under international law and seen as a ‘sham’ by Western and Kyiv governments, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing struggle Ukrainian counter-offensive as an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move could provide Moscow with a pretext to step up its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv regain thousands of square kilometers of territory this month.
In an address on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his address, saying he would use “every means at our disposal” if he felt Russia’s “territorial integrity” was threatened. .
The votes, which are expected to take place over five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Russian parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, with questions on the ballot . varying slightly by region. Together, the four regions make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plans, which are being held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by both the Ukrainian government and its Western allies. The European Union said it would not recognize the results and indicated that it was preparing a new set of sanctions against Russia.
The outcome of the “mock” referendums on secession is “almost certainly already decided”, UK Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons said on Twitter on Friday. “There will be results made public of something that didn’t happen. I wonder if anyone will even be called to vote,” she wrote.
Putin backed the referendums in an address to the nation on Wednesday. “The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbass and the civil-military administration of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They asked Russia to support this step, and we stressed that we will do everything to ensure safe conditions allowing people to express their will,” he said.
Separatist leaders in the four occupied regions said referendums were underway on Friday as Ukrainian officials in occupied areas of the country accused pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics.
“The long-awaited referendum has begun, which is aimed at restoring a fair course of events in our land, bringing peace to our homes, consolidating the status of Donbass as part of our historical homeland – Russia,” Vladimir said. Bidyovka, head of the People’s Council of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said in a propaganda statement posted on Telegram.
Ukrainian officials in the occupied areas on Friday accused pro-Russian forces to subvert what should be a democratic process in the referendums on secession.
In Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities urged people to vote at home, saying ballot boxes could be brought to them.
The Luhansk region is almost entirely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But that remains disputed – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.
The Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Lugansk region said on Friday that “the Russians will calculate and draw any outcome favorable to them” in what he called a “pseudo-referendum”.
“People’s opinion doesn’t matter,” Serhii Hayday said on Telegram, adding that “an armed man is involved in every polling station, whose appearance should compel people to vote obediently.”
In Mariupol, which is in the Donetsk region, “the main means of coercion to vote is door-to-door,” Petro Andriushchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram.
“The commission is made up of two people with a ballot box and ballot papers, and two armed men,” he said. “They’re knocking on the doors of apartments/houses, forcing neighbors to bring people to the commission. Coercion, coercion and more coercion. In fact, they offer to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ directly in the barrel of a armed.
Andriushchenko is not in town, but has been a reliable conduit for information from Mariupol. CNN is unable to independently verify his and other characterizations.
“Polling stations are located in shops and cafes,” Andriushchenko said. “However, they are empty. There are unusual facilities such as voting booths. The marking is carried out under the close supervision of armed people. This is what Russian democracy looks like.
Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told CNN that efforts in his region have shown very little participation.
“Most people are determined not to go there,” he said. “That’s why this door-to-door idea came about, because when armed people come to your house, it will be difficult and dangerous even to refuse to vote.”
He said the United Russia political party – Russia’s ruling party – was campaigning for secession while distributing food parcels to residents.
The exiled Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol – which is in the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia region – also urged residents to boycott the vote.
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live near the frontlines of the conflict, could succeed or be fair. Moreover, due to widespread internal displacement since the start of the conflict, electoral databases are likely outdated. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials said that about half of the pre-war population had left.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors the elections, condemned what it called “illegal referendums”.
A referendum held in Crimea in 2014, which officially saw 97% of voters support annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
This time around, some regions plan to announce the results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after voting ends, while in Kherson authorities will wait five days after polls close.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that if the regions announced majorities in favor of joining Russia, the ratification process would be quick, saying they could become part of the Russian Federation ” very soon”.
Asked if this would mean that any attempt by Ukraine to regain the territories would be considered an attack on Russian territory, Peskov replied: “Of course.”
Imprisoned Kremlin critic and Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny called the referendums and Putin’s “partial mobilization” of citizens for his war in Ukraine a “historic crime” in a speech in court on Friday.
Navalny filed an administrative complaint against the administration of penal colony number 6 in the Vladimir region.
“It implicates hundreds of thousands of people in the crimes that Putin is committing,” the opposition leader said.
“He’s like the mafia, you know? He binds hundreds of thousands of people by blood with this mobilization and these fake referenda,” Navalny added.