Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine have started voting in them Polls to join Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that increases the risk of an invasion of Moscow seven months after the fighting began.
Referendums, which are considered illegal under international law and dismissed as “fake” by Western and Kiev governments, could pave the way for Russia’s annexation of the territories, allowing Moscow to frame the continued Ukrainian counterattack As an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move might provide Moscow with an excuse to escalate its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv reclaim thousands of square miles of land this month.
In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his speech, saying he would use “all means available to us”, if he deemed Russia’s “territorial integrity” to be endangered.
Pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the Russian-controlled parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, called for the vote, which is expected to take place over five days, with questions about the balloting. It varies slightly by region. The four regions together make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
Both the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West have strongly condemned the plans, which are under military occupation and are actually implemented at gunpoint. The European Union said it would not recognize the results and indicated that it was preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
Putin endorsed the two referendums in an address to the nation on Wednesday. The parliaments of the Donbass People’s Republics and the Civil-Military Administration of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions decided to hold a referendum on the future of these regions. They asked Russia to support this step, and stressed that we will do everything we can to ensure safe conditions for people to express their will.
Separatist leaders in the four occupied regions said referendums are taking place on Friday, with Ukrainian officials from occupied regions of the country accusing pro-Russian forces of using coercive methods.
“The long-awaited referendum, aimed at restoring the just course of things in our land, returning peace to our homes, and consolidating the position of Donbass as part of our historical homeland – Russia has begun,” Vladimir Bedyovka, Chairman of the People’s Assembly of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a statement. My ad was posted on Telegram.
Ukrainian officials from the occupied areas on Friday accused pro-Russian forces Sabotage what should be a democratic process in referendums on secession.
In the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes could be brought to them.
Russian and pro-Russian forces control almost the entire Luhansk region. But it remains in dispute – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Belhorivka earlier this week.
The Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region said on Friday that “the Russians will calculate and get any favorable outcome for them” in what he called a “sham referendum”.
“The opinion of the residents does not matter,” Sarhi Heidi said on Telegram, adding that “an armed man is involved in every polling station, and his appearance should force people to meekly cast their votes.”
In Mariupol, located in the Donetsk region, “The main method of coercion to vote is door-to-door voting,” Petro Andryushenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram.
“The committee consists of two people with a ballot box, ballot papers and two armed men,” he said. “They are knocking on apartment/house doors, forcing neighbors to get people to come to the committee. Coercion, duress and more coercion. In effect, they offer to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ straight into the barrel of a gun.”
Andryushenko is not in the city, but he was a reliable channel for obtaining information from Mariupol. CNN is not able to independently verify its descriptions and others.
“Polling stations are located in shops and cafes,” Andryushenko said. “However, it is empty. There are no usual amenities like polling booths there. The sign is placed under close supervision by militants. This is what Russian democracy looks like.”
Yuri Sobolevsky, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told CNN that efforts in his region have shown very little turnout.
“Most people are determined not to go,” he said. “That’s why this door-to-door idea came about, because when armed men come into your house, it will be difficult and dangerous even to refuse to vote.”
He said United Russia – Russia’s ruling party – is campaigning for secession while also distributing food parcels to residents.
The Ukrainian mayor of exile in Melitopol – located in the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya 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 front lines of the conflict, will be successful or fair. In addition, due to the prevalence of internal displacement since the beginning of the conflict, voting databases are likely to be outdated. In Kherson for example, Ukrainian officials said about half of the pre-war population had left.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the elections, condemned what it said were “illegal referendums”.
Russian lawmakers ratified a referendum organized in Crimea in 2014, which officially saw 97% of voters return to annexation, within a week.
This time around, some regions plan to announce results sooner than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they will announce results the day after voting ends, while in Kherson, authorities will wait five days after polls close.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted on Friday that if the regions declared a majority in favor of joining Russia, the ratification process would be swift, saying they could become part of the Russian Federation “very soon.”
When asked if that meant that any attempt by Ukraine to regain territory would be considered an attack on Russian territory, Peskov said: “Of course.”
Jailed Kremlin critic and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called referendums and the “partial mobilization” of citizens by Putin for his war in Ukraine a “historic crime” in a speech to the court on Friday.
Navalny filed an administrative lawsuit against the administration of criminal colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region.
“This implicates hundreds of thousands of people in the crimes committed by Putin,” the opposition leader said.
“It’s like the mafia, you know? It’s bound by the blood of hundreds of thousands of people with this mobilization and these phony referendums,” Navalny added.