- Referendums in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia
- Seen as paving the way for the escalation of the Russian war
- The West and Ukraine denounce the votes as a sham
- Kyiv says residents are being forced to vote in cordoned off towns
- Zelenskiy says residents of occupied areas should resist Russian mobilization
KYIV, September 23 (Reuters) – Russia on Friday launched referendums aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, drawing condemnation from Kyiv and Western countries that dismissed the votes as a sham and vowed not to recognize their results.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving certain occupied areas until the end of the four-day vote, armed groups entered homes and employees were threatened with dismissal if they did not participate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an overnight address that the votes would be “unequivocally condemned” by the world, along with the mobilization Russia began this week, including in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. occupied by Russia.
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“These are not just crimes against international law and Ukrainian law, they are crimes against specific people, against a nation,” Zelenskiy said.
Votes on joining Russia were hastily organized after Ukraine recaptured large swaths of the northeast in a counteroffensive earlier this month.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin also this week announced a military plan to draft 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the bitter conflict since its February 24 invasion.
Zelenskiy also addressed residents of Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine and said they should resist efforts to mobilize them to fight.
“Hide from Russian mobilization in every possible way. Avoid draft orders. Try to move to the territory of Free Ukraine,” he said, urging those who found themselves in the Russian armed forces to “sabotage”, “interfere” and pass. on intelligence to Ukraine.
By incorporating the four zones, Moscow could present attacks aimed at retaking them as an attack on Russia itself – potentially using this to justify even a nuclear response.
Putin and other Russian officials have mentioned nuclear weapons as a last resort option: a terrifying prospect in a war that has already killed tens of thousands, uprooted millions, and damaged the global economy.
Voting in the eastern and southeastern provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, representing about 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory, was scheduled to take place from Friday to Tuesday.
“Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors,” said Yuriy Sobolevsky, the first deputy chairman of the council displaced from the Kherson region.
In the Donetsk region, turnout on Friday was 23.6%, Tass said citing a local official. More than 20.5% of eligible voters in Zaporizhzhia region and 15% of those in Kherson region cast their ballots on Friday, Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing local election officials.
“In our opinion, this is enough for the first election day,” said the head of the electoral commission installed by Russia in Kherson, Marina Zakharova, quoted by the media.
Polling stations have also been set up in Moscow, for the inhabitants of these regions now living in Russia. Flag-waving government supporters attended rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg in support of the referendums and the war effort.
Serhiy Gaidai, Ukrainian governor of Lugansk, said that in the city of Starobilsk, the population was banned from leaving and people were forced to leave their homes to vote.
In the city of Bilovodsk, a company manager told employees that voting was compulsory and that anyone refusing to participate would be fired and their names given to the security services, he added.
Reuters could not immediately verify the coercion reports.
Ukraine, Western leaders and the United Nations have condemned the votes as an illegitimate precursor to illegal annexation. There are no independent observers and much of the pre-war population has fled.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking in Ottawa, denounced “fake referendums” and said Russia “is now in total violation of the Charter of the United Nations, its principles, its values, everything what the United Nations stands for.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance would step up its support for Ukraine in response to the referendums. Read more
“We will never recognize these referendums which appear to be a step towards annexation of Russia and we will never recognize a so-called annexation if it occurs,” added the Group of Seven of major industrial democracies.
Moscow says they provide an opportunity for people in the region to express their views.
Denis Pushilin, head of the breakaway Russia-backed Donetsk region, said Kyiv’s “propaganda” about the violations was aimed at a Western audience, Tass reported.
Russia previously used a referendum as a pretext to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, which the international community has not acknowledged.
Putin maintains that Russia is conducting a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Russia from the transatlantic NATO alliance.
Ostracized by most European leaders, Putin has drawn rare sympathy from longtime friend Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, who said he was ‘pushed’ into the invasion to try to put down “honest people” at the head of Kyiv.
However, Ukraine and the West say the war is an unprovoked imperialist attempt to reclaim a country that shed Russian rule with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A UN-mandated commission of inquiry says it has found evidence of war crimes, including executions, rape, torture and kidnapping of children in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, after visits in 27 areas and interviews with over 150 victims and witnesses.
Russia denies targeting civilians and says the abuse charges are a smear campaign.
On the battlefield, Ukraine said it shot down four Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones over the sea near the port of Odessa. Ukraine has chastised Tehran for supplying arms to Russia and said it would strip Iran’s ambassador of accreditation and reduce the number of Iranian diplomats in Kyiv.
At the borders, the Russians continued to leave to avoid the military repechage. “We don’t support what’s happening right now. We don’t want to be part of it,” Slava, 29, said with partner Evgeniy at a crossing in Finland where traffic has spiked.
In a poor rural area, a woman resented a summons – for her dead brother.
(This story refiles to remove superfluous word from title)
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Reports from Reuters offices; Written by Mark Heinrich, Andrew Cawthorne and Simon Lewis; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Andrew Heavens and Daniel Wallis
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