UKRAINE: Attempting to annex four Ukrainian regions that are currently under occupation, Russia began holding referendums on Friday. Kyiv and Western countries denounced the move and vowed not to recognise the results of the votes.
Officials from Ukraine said that armed gangs were breaking into people’s houses, people were not allowed to leave some of the occupied locations until the four-day referendum was over, and that employees who chose not to take part were subject to retaliation threats.
The world will “unequivocally reject” the elections, as well as the mobilisation Russia started this week, especially in Crimea and other regions of Ukraine seized by Russia, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a nightly speech.
“These are crimes against particular people, against a nation, not just crimes against Ukrainian law and international law,” Zelensky added.
The referendum for joining Russia was hastily scheduled after Ukraine’s counteroffensive earlier this month resulted in the recapture of substantial portions of the northeast.
The Kremlin looks to be attempting to regain the upper hand in the gruelling struggle since its invasion on February 24 after Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced military conscription this week to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine.
Zelensky also spoke to those living in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, advising them to rebuff any attempts to incite them to battle.
“Any way you can, hide from the Russian mobilisation. Stay away from draught orders.” He advised individuals who had joined the Russian military to sabotage, interfere, or try to move to the land of free Ukraine, and inform Ukraine of intelligence.
By including the four regions, Moscow could characterise attempts to reclaim them as an attack on Russia itself, possibly using that to justify a nuclear response.
Nuclear weapons have been suggested by Putin and other Russian leaders as a last resort, which is horrifying in the context of a conflict that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives, dislocated millions and devastated the world economy.
Voting was scheduled to take place from Friday to Tuesday in the eastern and southeastern regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, which make up around 15% of Ukrainian territory.
Yuriy Sobolevsky, the ousted first deputy council chairman of the Kherson area, declared that the wisest course of action right now for the people of Kherson would be to keep their doors closed.
A local official was quoted by Tass as saying that the turnout on Friday in the Donetsk region was 23.6%. According to local election officials cited by the Russian news agency Interfax, more than 20.5% of Zaporizhzhia region voters who were eligible to vote and 15% of Kherson region voters cast ballots on Friday.
For citizens who now reside in Russia from such territories, polling places were also set up in Moscow. Rallies in support of the referendums and the war effort were attended by flag-waving government supporters in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, claimed that voting was being forced out of homes and that residents of the town of Starobilsk were not allowed to leave.
The votes were denounced by Ukraine, Western leaders, and the UN as an illegitimate prelude to unlawful annexation. A large portion of the pre-war population has left, and there are no impartial witnesses.
Speaking in Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced the “false referendums” and claimed that Russia had “completely violated the UN Charter, its principles, its values, and all that the UN stands for.”
In response to the referendums, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared that the military alliance would increase its support for Ukraine.
The Group of Seven leading industrial democracies said, “We will never recognise these referenda that look to be a step toward Russian annexation, and we will never recognise alleged annexation if it occurs.”
Tass stated that Denis Pushilin, the leader of the rebel Donetsk region, claimed that Kyiv’s “propaganda” concerning transgressions was intended for a Western audience.
The international world has not recognised Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which was preceded by a referendum.
Putin claims that Russia is conducting a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine, purge it of ominous nationalists, and defend Russia against the transatlantic alliance NATO.
After visiting 27 locations and speaking with more than 150 victims and witnesses, an investigation commission mandated by the U.N. claimed to have discovered evidence of war crimes in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, including executions, rape, torture, and kidnapping.
On the front lines, Ukraine reported shooting down four “kamikaze” drones of Iranian manufacture over the water close to the port of Odesa. Iran was criticised by Ukraine for giving the weaponry to Russia and warned that it will reduce the number of Iranian diplomats in Kyiv and revoke the accreditation of the Iranian ambassador.
The accusations of abuse are a smear effort, Russia claims, and it denies targeting civilians.