Russia begins annexation vote in occupied Ukraine, West condemns ‘simulacrum’


  • Referendums in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia
  • Seen as paving the way for the escalation of the Russian war
  • Denounced as illegal, illegitimate by Ukraine, the West
  • The regions represent about 15% of the Ukrainian territory
  • Also vote in Russia for those who have left the occupied areas

KYIV, September 23 (Reuters) – Russia on Friday launched referendums aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, upping the ante in the seven-month-old war with what Kyiv called an illegal sham that has seen residents threatened with sanctions if they did not vote for it.

Voting on integrating the regions with Russia began after Ukraine recaptured large swathes of northeastern territory earlier this month in a counteroffensive. Russia’s war has killed tens of thousands, uprooted millions and damaged the global economy.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin also this week announced a military plan to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the bitter conflict.

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And by incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could portray attacks aimed at retaking them as an attack on Russia itself, a warning to Kyiv and Western supporters.

Putin said Wednesday that Russia would “use all means at its disposal” to protect itself, an allusion to nuclear weapons. “It’s not a bluff,” he said.

Referendums had been discussed for months by Moscow-based authorities in the four regions – in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine – but recent victories in the battlefield of Kyiv have caused a scramble for the program.

Voting in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, representing around 15% of Ukrainian territory, is due to take place from Friday to Tuesday.

Serhiy Gaidai, Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, said that in the city of Starobilsk, Russian authorities had banned people from leaving the city until Tuesday and that armed groups had been sent to search houses and coerce people to come out to take part in the referendum.

“Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors,” Yuriy Sobolevsky, displaced Ukrainian first vice-president of the Kherson regional council, said on the Telegram messaging app.

The referendums have been condemned by Ukraine and the West as illegitimate and choreographed precursors to illegal annexation. There will be no independent observers and much of the pre-war population has fled.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the elections, said the results would have no legal significance as they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards and the areas are not not secure.

REPORTS OF COERCION, PANIC

Gaidai said that in the Russian city of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees that voting was compulsory and that anyone who refused to participate would be fired and their name given to the security services.

“The Russians’ mood is panicked because they weren’t ready to hold this so-called referendum so quickly, there’s no support, there’s not enough people,” Sobolevsky said. from Kherson on the Telegram messaging app.

Gaidai decried the plebiscites as “elections without elections”. He said people were being forced to fill out “pieces of paper” with no privacy in kitchens and residential yards, with towns locked down so people couldn’t leave to avoid voting.

Russia maintains that the referendums offer the inhabitants of the region the opportunity to express their point of view.

“From the beginning of the operation (…), we said that the peoples of the respective territories must decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their destiny”, declared the minister Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. the week.

Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territories and will fight until the last Russian soldier is expelled.

Residents of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, from where Russian forces were repelled by strong resistance in March, rejected the referendums.

“(They) won’t give Moscow the upper hand. It’s nonsense, bluff and political manipulation to scare us and Western countries with their nuclear stuff,” Oleksandr Yaroshenko told Reuters. 65 years.

Voting for residents who fled the occupied territories also took place at some 20 polling stations in Moscow, including the embassy of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian lawmaker said.

Russian-installed authorities in Kherson have said that all permanent residents of Russian-controlled regions who are currently in Russia will be able to vote in the city where they are staying, upon presentation of relevant documents.

Ukraine says Russia intends to present the referendum results as a sign of popular support and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognized.

JUSTIFY SELF-DEFENSE

Alluding to the Kremlin’s strategic calculation in organizing the referendums, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of his national security council, warned that Moscow would now view any attack on the four territories as an attack on Russia herself.

“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all forces in self-defense,” Medvedev said in a Telegram post on Thursday, adding that all weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used.

The plebiscites have been denounced as an illegal farce by world leaders including US President Joe Biden, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as NATO, the European Union and the OSCE.

Russia already considers Lugansk and Donetsk, which together form the Moscow-backed Donbass region, partially occupied in 2014, as independent states.

“Voting began in the referendum on the integration of the Zaporizhzhia region into Russia as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation! We are going home!” said Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian-backed administration of that region of southern Ukraine.

Despite the plan to mobilize reservists, Putin maintains that Russia is only carrying out a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Russia against NATO.

Kyiv and the West are calling Russia’s actions an unprovoked imperialist attempt to reclaim a country that shed Russian rule with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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Reports from Reuters offices; Written by Michael Perry and Mark Heinrich; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frank Jack Daniel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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