Russian-backed officials in four partially occupied Ukrainian regions have launched so-called referendums on joining the Russian Federation – which some have called sham votes because they are illegal under international law – amid claims by some local officials that voters were being threatened and intimidated.
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Moscow-controlled administrations in the Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions are holding snap votes from September 23 that go against the UN charter amid the biggest conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving certain occupied areas until the end of the four-day vote, that armed groups went into homes to force people to vote and that employees were threatened if they did not take part in the ballot that the Kremlin should organize. use to annex territories and escalate the war amid growing signs that his invasion of Ukraine is faltering.
Serhiy Hayday, regional governor of Ukraine in Lugansk, said in a post on telegram that the Russian authorities banned people from leaving for several days to secure the votes, while armed groups were sent to search homes and force people to come out and take part in the referendum.
“We have information that the so-called ‘voting commissions’ who go to the residences to register the votes are accompanied by armed people… If the doors of the apartments are not opened, they threaten to break them down” , he added. said, adding that anyone voting “no” was put on a register by the commissioners.
The referendums have been condemned by Kyiv, Western leaders and the United Nations as an illegitimate and choreographed precursor to illegal annexation. There are no independent observers and much of the pre-war population has fled.
In his evening speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the vote a “sham” and undemocratic.
The move comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization on September 21 amid apparent heavy personnel losses during the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that Moscow began in February.
The announcement sparked an exodus of able-bodied Russian men who rushed to leave the country to avoid being drafted, with increased traffic at the borders with Finland and Georgia and a spike in airfare prices from Moscow.
Zelenskiy, switching from Ukrainian to Russian, addressed Russian citizens directly in his speech, telling them they were “thrown to death.”
“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and tortures of Ukrainians,” Zelenskiy said, adding, “because you were silent; because you are silent.”
He told the Russians that “now it’s time for you to choose”.
“For men in Russia, it is a choice to die or live, to become crippled or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or still trying to protect them from death, from war, from one person,” Zelenskiy said.
The hastily announced referendums were organized by the Kremlin-installed leaders of the four regions. They gave no advance warning that they planned to hold the vote on annexation between September 23 and 27.
In Kherson, Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian deputy to the region’s council, told RFE/RL on September 23 that polling stations opened by Russian-controlled officials in the region remained mostly empty, urging them to start going door to door collecting votes “at gunpoint”.
“The occupiers have opened the polling stations. But there is no one at the polling stations, as residents of the Kherson region point out. They are empty. their bogus referendum. In other words, it is no longer a secret ballot. It’s a forced collection of the ‘yes’ answer at gunpoint,” Khlan said.
The hasty decision to hold the vote comes as the Ukrainian army is on the offensive in these regions, liberating large swaths of territory and raising the specter of a possible Russian defeat.
Western officials and experts say Putin plans to use the sham referendums to claim Ukraine is invading territory that is part of Russia. This week he threatened to use all of Russia’s power – a thinly veiled reference to its nuclear weapons – in an effort to scare Kyiv and its Western supporters from further military action.
The Kremlin has shown little desire to mask its true goal on the ballot, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters in Moscow on September 23 that he was “convinced” that Russia would proceed “rather quickly” to take control. control of the regions if the vote was successful.
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian territorial takeovers.
The incorporation of the four zones would then allow Moscow to present and repossess them as an attack on Russia itself – potentially using this to justify even a nuclear response.
Russia’s moves came at the United Nations General Assembly, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on September 22 called on members of the body’s Security Council to “send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must cease immediately.”
He called Russia’s effort to annex more Ukrainian territory “another dangerous escalation, as well as a rejection of diplomacy.”
In addition, the Group of Seven industrialized countries condemned the referendums of annexation organized in the Ukrainian zones occupied by Russia like a “sham” without “legal effect nor legitimacy”.
“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,” the G7 leaders said in a statement. statement September 23.
The Kremlin has carried out a series of acts in Ukrainian territories under its control that further underline the lack of legitimacy the votes might have.
Moscow deported about 1.6 million Ukrainians from these regions to Russia, according to Western estimates, while also transporting Russian citizens to Ukrainian territory.
WATCH: Long lines of vehicles formed at a border crossing between Russia’s North Ossetia region and Georgia after Moscow announced a partial military mobilization.
It also captured the personal and biometric data of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in so-called “filter camps”, opening the door, experts say, to the manipulation of ballots.
Nikolai Bulaev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said he expects “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainians currently in Russia to take part in the referendum.
Russia has little history of free and fair elections, with common practices of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, outright fraud and media manipulation. He staged a similar illegal vote in 2014 after annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Very few countries accepted the results of the vote.
There is no single database containing information on the number of polling stations that will open in Russia for Ukrainian citizens, nor uniform rules on how voting will take place in the country, according to the daily Kommersant reported.
Blinken called on every member of the United Nations to “reject sham referendums and to declare unequivocally that all Ukrainian territory is and will remain part of Ukraine.”
He said the United States would continue to support Ukraine regardless of the vote.