Russia on Friday launched a referendum aimed at annexing Ukraine’s four occupied territories, condemned by Kyiv and Western nations, who dismissed the votes as a sham and pledged not to recognize their results.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied territories until the end of the four-day vote, armed groups were going into homes, and employees were threatened with sacking if they didn’t participate.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a nightly address that the votes would be “categorically condemned” by the world, as well as the mobilization launched by Russia this week, which includes Crimea and other regions of Russia- enthralled Ukraine.
“These are not just crimes against international law and Ukrainian law, they are crimes against specific people, against a nation,” Zelensky said.
Votes to become part of Russia were hurriedly held after Ukraine captured large areas of the Northeast in a retaliatory strike earlier this month.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing a military draft this week to include 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin has been trying to gain the upper hand in the peace conflict since the February 24 invasion.
Zelenskyy also addressed people in parts of Russia-occupied Ukraine, saying they should resist efforts to mobilize them to fight.
“From Russian mobilization, you can hide in any way. Avoid the draft order. Try to move to the territory of free Ukraine,” he said, calling on those ending up in the Russian armed forces to “sabotage,” “intervene” and fight Ukraine. requested to provide intelligence.
By involving the four regions, Moscow could portray the attacks as an attack on Russia to re-take them – potentially even using it to justify a nuclear response.
Putin and other Russian officials refer to nuclear weapons as an option in extremism: a terrifying prospect in a war that has already killed thousands uprooted millions and ravaged the global economy.
Voting in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya provinces to the east and southeast, representing about 15% of Ukrainian territory, was scheduled to run from Friday to Tuesday.
“Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors,” said Yuri Sobolevsky, the displaced First Deputy Council Chairman of the Kherson region.
In the Donetsk region, the turnout on Friday was 23.6%, Tass quoted a local official as saying. Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted local election officials as saying that more than 20.5% of eligible voters in the Zaporizhzhya region and 15% of the Kherson region voted on Friday.
” In our view, enough for the first day of voting,” the head of the Russian- established election commission in Kherson was quoted as saying, Marina Zakharova.
For residents of regions that are now living in Russia, polling stations were also set up in Moscow. Flag-signalling government sympathizers took part in rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg in favour of the referendum and the war effort.
Serhiy Gaidai, the Luhansk governor of Ukraine, said the city of Starobilsk was banned from going to the population and people were being forced to vote outside their homes.
In the city of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees that voting was mandatory and anyone who refused to participate would be fired and their names given to security services, he said.
Reuters could not immediately confirm the news of the coercion.
Ukraine, Western leaders, and the United Nations condemned the vote as an illegitimate precursor to illegal occupation. There are no independent spectators, and much of thepre-war population has fled.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking in Ottawa, condemned the “fake referendum” and said Russia was “now violating the United Nations Charter, its principles, its values, everything the United Nations stands for.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance would increase support for Ukraine in response to the referendum.
“We’ll no way fete these blackballs that appear to be a step toward Russian annexation, and if they do, we will noway fete the alleged annexation,” the grouping of seven major industrial democracies said.
Moscow says they offer people in the region an opportunity to express their views.
Russia previously used a referendum in 2014 on the pretext of Ukraine’s annexation of Crimea, which has not been recognized by the international community.
Putin says Russia is conducting a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine, rid itself of dangerous nationalists and protect Russia from the transatlantic coalition NATO.
Dejected by most European leaders, Putin drew some rare sympathy from long-time friend Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier, who said he had been “pushed” into the invasion to try to put “civilized people” in charge of Kyiv.
However, Ukraine and the West maintain that the war is an unprovoked, imperialist attempt to re-conquer the country that shook Russian supremacy with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
An UN-mandated investigative commission said it found evidence of war crimes, including executions, rape, torture, and the imprisonment of children, after visiting 27 regions in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories and interviewing more than 150 victims and witnesses.
In a poor rural area, a woman made a call-up for her dead brother.