Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine have started voting in a referendum on joining Russia, according to separatist leaders, in a move that raises the risk of Moscow’s invasion seven months after the start of hostilities. .
A referendum, illegal under international law and dismissed as a “fake” by Western governments and Kyiv, could pave the way for Russia’s annexation of the region, prompting Moscow to stop the ongoing Ukrainian counterattack against Russia. Allows it to be framed as an attack on itself.
Such a move could provide Moscow with a pretext to escalate a faltering war that has seen Kyiv regain thousands of square miles of territory 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 at our disposal” if he deemed Russia’s “territorial integrity” endangered. Stated.
The vote, which was to take place over five days, was called by pro-Russian officials in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Russian-held areas of Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, and asked questions about the vote. Varies slightly by region. Together the four regions occupy about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plan, which is under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, has been strongly condemned by both the Ukrainian government and its Western allies. The European Union has said it will not recognize the results, suggesting it is preparing a new sanctions package against Russia.
Putin supported the referendum in his address to the nation on Wednesday.”The parliament of the People’s Republic of Donbass and the civil-military administration of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions have decided to hold a referendum on the future of these regions. called on Russia to support this step and stressed that we would do everything possible to ensure safe conditions for people to express their will.
A referendum is underway on Friday as separatist leaders in the four occupied regions of Ukraine accused pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics by Ukrainian officials in the occupied territories of Ukraine. said.
“The long-awaited referendum has been launched, which will restore the fair flow of things to our land, restore peace to our homes, and the status of Donbass as part of the historic Motherland Russia. ,” Vladimir Bydyovka, head of the self-proclaimed People’s Council of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a propaganda statement posted on Telegram.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that these regions could become part of the Russian Federation “quite soon”, announcing the majority in favor of the regions joining Russia. He explained what action Moscow would take in that case.
He said that once the procedures for these territories to formally join Russia are complete, Russian law will apply.
Asked if Ukraine’s attempt to reclaim territory meant it would be considered an attack on Russian territory, Peskov replied, “Of course.”
Ukrainian officials in the occupied territories accused pro-Russian forces of subverting what should have been a democratic process in Friday’s referendum on secession.
In both Luhansk and Zaporizhia provinces, local officials urged people to vote from home and said they could bring ballot boxes.
The Luhansk region is almost completely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But it remains contested – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.
On Friday, the Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region said in what he called a “pseudo referendum”, “the Russians will calculate and draw an outcome in their favor.”
“People’s opinions don’t matter,” Serhiy Heyday said in Telegram, adding that “armed men are involved at each polling station and their appearance forces people to vote quietly.”
In Mariupol, located in the Donetsk region, “the main means of forcing votes is door-to-door,” Petro Andryushenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, told Telegram.
“The committee consists of two people with ballot boxes and ballots and two armed men,” he said. “They knock on the doors of apartments and houses and force their neighbors to come to the committee. I am proposing. ”
Andriushchenko is not in the city but is acting as a conduit to ensure information from Mariupol. CNN is unable to independently verify his or any other characteristics.
“Polling stations are in shops and cafes,” said Andryushenko. “But they are empty. There are no polling stations and other usual facilities there. Marks are made under the close supervision of armed people. This is what Russian democracy looks like.”
Yury Sobolevsky, deputy chairman of the Kherson Regional Council, told CNN that the efforts being carried out in his region have shown little participation.
“Most people are determined not to go,” he said. “That’s why this door-to-door idea was born, because when armed people come to your house, even refusing to vote becomes difficult and dangerous.”
Ahead of the vote, pro-Russian officials tried to fan the voters. Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti introduced posters being distributed in Luhansk. It reads: “Russia is the future.”
“We are united by 1,000 years of history,” it says. “For centuries we were part of the same great nation. The disintegration of the state was a great political disaster.
In areas where many voters live close to the front lines of the conflict, such a hasty process seems unlikely to succeed or be fair, observers say. Additionally, voting databases may be outdated due to widespread internal displacement since the conflict began. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials say about half of the pre-war population has left.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation, which monitors the election, has accused it of an “illegal referendum”.
“A so-called “referendum” planned by or with the support of the armed forces illegally exercising de facto control over the occupied territories of Ukraine shall be subject to international standards and international humanitarian law. shall not be held legally liable as a result thereof. His OSCE, which monitors elections in 57 member states, said:
In a referendum held in Crimea in 2014, 97% of voters formally voted in favor of annexation, which was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
This time around, some regions will announce their results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after the polls closed, while in Kherson, authorities wait five days after the polls close.
Earlier this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied territories warned that the security situation was due to Ukrainian forces advancing offensives in Donetsk and parts of Zaporizhia, endangering Russian positions and supply lines in Kherson. The vote was likely to be postponed to .Almost daily attacks from Ukrainian artillery.
Earlier this week there was a sudden and attuned change of heart.
Since then, Russian politicians have been quick to voice their support, pointing out that once these regions join Russia, they will be entitled to full Moscow protection, assuming the vote is in favor. .
Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Kosachev said Russia has a duty to protect these territories and an attack on them would be considered an attack on Russia “with all consequences”.
Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Russian National Security Council, said this was “extremely important” for the “organized protection” of the population, and that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used. stated more clearly that it could be To defend the territories that joined Russia from Ukraine.
“Intrusion into Russian territory is a crime against which all means of self-defense can be used,” Medvedev said.