Vote begins on referendums in Russia-controlled regions of Ukraine: NPR

A military vehicle drives along a street with a billboard that reads: “With Russia Forever, September 27,” in Luhansk, controlled by Russian-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, September 22, 2022.

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A military vehicle drives along a street with a billboard that reads: “With Russia Forever, September 27,” in Luhansk, controlled by Russian-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, September 22, 2022.

AP

KYIV, Ukraine – Voting began Friday in the Moscow-occupied regions of Ukraine on referendums to join Russia, Russia-backed officials there said.

The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums, widely condemned by Ukraine and the West as shams without any legal force, are seen as a step towards Russia’s annexation of the territories.

The votes will be held in the Luhansk, Kherson regions and the partly Russian-controlled regions of Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk.

The vote, asking residents if they want their regions to be part of Russia, is sure to move in the direction of Moscow. That would give Russia the pretext to claim that attempts by Ukrainian forces to regain control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month war.

The referendums are following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders for a partial mobilization, which could add about 300,000 Russian troops to the battle. The vote will last five days through Tuesday.

As moods surged in the occupied territories, Russian social media sites were full of dramatic scenes of tearful families saying goodbye to men leaving military mobilization centers. In cities across the vast country, men hugged their crying relatives before leaving as part of the conscription. Russian anti-war activists, meanwhile, planned more protests against the mobilization.

Election officials will carry ballots to people’s homes during the first four days of the referendums and set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings, according to Russian-installed officials in the occupied territories, citing security reasons. Tuesday is the only day voters are invited to come to the regular polls.

Polling stations have also been opened in Russia, where refugees from the occupied territories can vote.

Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum “a historic milestone”.

Addressing the occupied regions in an online statement Friday, Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said: “If you decide to join the Russian Federation, we will support you.”

Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Russian parliament, said residents of the occupied regions voted “life or death” in the referendums.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “mock referendum” in his overnight speech, in which he switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens that they are being “thrown to their deaths”.

“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it is time for you to choose. For men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become crippled or to maintain their health. For women in Russia is this the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”

The vote takes place against the backdrop of relentless fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian troops exchanging fire as both sides refuse to give up ground.

On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhzhya region reported a loud explosion in the center of Melitopol, a city Moscow captured early in the war. Official Vladimir Rogov gave no details about the cause of the explosion and whether there were any damage and casualties.

Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian troops of shelling the region’s capital Donetsk city and the nearby city of Yasynuvata.

Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country. Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine, which borders the Kherson region, said there were explosions in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.

Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said Russians unleashed a barrage of shelling Friday morning at Nikopol, a town across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.

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