Kyiv, Ukraine – Moscow began organizing referendums on joining Russia in the areas it occupies in Ukraine on Friday, an effort widely seen as a hoax that is expected to culminate in the annexation of an area larger than Portugal.
While the Kremlin has used referendums and annexations in the past to impose its will, the audacity of President Vladimir Putin’s maneuvering in Ukraine far exceeds anything it has tried before. Large numbers of people fled from the areas controlled by Russia, and the process was expedited and The referendums are taking place against a backdrop of repression – UN experts have cited evidence of war crimes in a powerful new statement.
The ballot papers that were distributed had one question: Do you want to secede from Ukraine and create an independent state that would enter the Russian Federation?
“We will be able to make our historic choice,” Kirill Strimosov, the leader of the Russian occupation administration in the southern Kherson region, said in a statement.
He said the wording on the ballot papers – in both Ukrainian and Russian – was “in accordance with international law,” but that even before the first vote, the referendum plans were met with international condemnation.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Biden said that “if nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences,” the global security system created to prevent a repeat of the horrors of World War II will be jeopardized.
Russian acting officials in four regions — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south — earlier this week announced plans to hold referendums over four days starting on Friday. Russia controls nearly all of the four regions, Luhansk and Kherson, but only a fraction of the other two, Zaporizhia and Donetsk.
Ukrainian officials dismissed the vote as a gruesome theater – polling was held in cities devastated by Russian forces and deserted by most residents. President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Ukraine’s allies for their unwavering support and said the “farce” of “mock referendums” would do nothing to change his country’s fight to expel Russia from Ukraine.
Ukrainian partisans, sometimes working with special operations forces, bombed warehouses carrying ballot papers and buildings where Russian agency officials held their meetings while preparing for the vote..
An explosion rocked the southern Russian-controlled city of Melitopol Friday morning before voting began. Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of exile, warned residents to stay away from Russian military and equipment.
To give the appearance of broad participation, minors between the ages of 13 and 17 were encouraged to vote, Ukraine’s security services warned on Thursday.
Ukrainian officials said the workers were forced to vote under the threat of losing their jobs.
The mayor of the occupied exile city of Ennerhodar, the city belonging to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in the south, has asked residents to stay away from polling stations.
“Stay home if possible and don’t open the door to strangers,” he said in a message posted on Telegram.
Olha, who reached out to her friends in Innerhodar Thursday night and who, like the others, did not want to use her full name out of fear for her safety, said preparations had been going on for weeks and that security had been tightened.
“Since yesterday, they have not allowed men between the ages of 18 and 35 to leave the city,” she said. They want to be drafted into the Russian armed forces. She said, who stopped speaking as she cried.
It was a concern repeatedly expressed by residents of the occupied territories, as well as by Ukrainian officials: that one of the first consequences of the annexation would be the conscription of Ukrainians into the Russian army. This is already the case in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk occupied by Russia since 2014.
Andrey, 44, who has friends and relatives in Kherson, said he spoke with friends who said it was not possible to leave the city because of the referendum. “You know, those smart ones are sitting at home and not going anywhere,” he said.
Anna Lukinova And the Maria Varnikova Reporting contributed from Kyiv, Ukraine.