Russia launched referendums on Friday aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, raising the stakes of the seven-month war in what Kyiv called an illegal sham operation that threatened residents with punishment if they failed to vote.
The vote on whether the regions should become part of Russia comes after Ukraine retook large swaths of northeastern territory earlier this month in a counteroffensive against the invasion that began on February 24.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing a military draft this week to raise 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the bitter conflict.
And, having included these four territories in Russia, Moscow could present attacks with the aim of repelling them as an attack on Russia itself, a warning to Kiev and its Western supporters. Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would “use all available means” to defend itself, hinting at nuclear weapons.
As a result of the war, tens of thousands of people have already died, millions have been displaced and the world economy has been crushed. Referendums have been discussed for months by Moscow-appointed authorities in four regions – in the east and southeast of Ukraine – but Kiev’s recent victories on the battlefields have sparked a struggle over their appointment. Voting in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, which make up about 15% of the territory of Ukraine, should take place from Friday to Tuesday.
The governor of the Luhansk region of Ukraine, Siarhei Gaidai, said that in the city of Starobelsk, the Russian authorities forbade the population to leave the city until Tuesday, and armed groups were sent to search houses and force people to leave to participate in the referendum. “Today, it would be best for the people of Kherson not to open the door,” Yurii Sobalevsky, the first deputy chairman of the Kherson Oblast Council from Ukraine, said in the Telegram messaging program.
The referendums were condemned by Ukraine, Western leaders and the United Nations as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to illegal annexation. There will be no independent observers, and most of the pre-war population has fled.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the elections, said the election results would have no legal significance because they did not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards and the territories were not safe.
REPORTS ON COERCION, PANIC
Gaidai said that in the Russian-controlled city of Belovadsk, the company’s director told employees that the vote was mandatory and that anyone who refused to participate would be fired and their names handed over to security services. “The mood of the Russians is panic because they were not ready to hold this so-called referendum so quickly, there is no support, there are not enough people,” said Sobalevsky from Kherson on the Telegram messaging app.
Gaidai called the plebiscites “elections without elections.” He said people were being forced to fill out “paperwork” without privacy in their kitchens and backyards, and cities were being locked down to prevent people from leaving to avoid voting.
Moscow argues that the referendums give people in the region a chance to express their opinion. “Voting has begun on the referendum on Zaporizhzhia Oblast joining Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation! We’re coming home!” – said Uladzimir Rogov, an official in the regional administration established by the Russians.
The administration said that two cars with “Ukrainian saboteurs” drove into the area and were “being sorted out”, according to the Russian news agency TASS. Reuters could not verify the information.
Ukraine says it will never recognize Russian control over its territory. “(Referendums) will not give Moscow an advantage. All this is nonsense, bluff and political manipulation to scare us and Western countries with their nuclear weapons,” 65-year-old Alexander Yaroshenka, a resident of Kyiv, told Reuters.
Voting was also held for residents who fled the occupied territories at approximately 20 polling stations in Moscow, including the embassy of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian deputy said. Earlier, Russia used the referendum as a basis for the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, which was not recognized by the international community.
JUSTIFICATION OF SELF-DEFENSE
Alluding to the Kremlin’s calculations in organizing the referendums, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the National Security Council, warned that Moscow would henceforth view any attack on the four territories as an attack on Russia itself.
Any weapon from Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, can be used for “self-defense,” he said.
Despite the plan to mobilize reservists, Putin claims that Russia is only conducting a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and protect Russia from NATO.
Kyiv and the West say the war is an unprovoked imperialist attempt to reclaim the country, which was freed from Russian rule after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
War crimes, including rape, torture and the imprisonment of children, have been committed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, the head of a UN investigative body said Friday, citing visits to 27 areas and interviews with more than 150 victims and witnesses.
He said they found evidence of a large number of executions, including bodies with bound hands, slit throats and gunshot wounds to the head. Russia denies targeting civilians in the conflict and says allegations to that effect are a smear campaign against its forces.