Four regions in Russian-occupied Ukraine have begun holding referendums, which Kyiv has condemned as illegitimate, and is seen as paving the way for Moscow to formally annex about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Voting will continue in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two “independent republics” controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, as well as in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces until September 27.
Russian news agency TASS reported that the voting process in the four regions will be unconventional.
“Due to short deadlines and lack of technical equipment, it was decided not to conduct electronic voting and to use traditional paper ballots,” she said.
Authorities will go door to door for the first four days of vote collection, and polling stations will only open on the last day for residents to cast their votes.
The leaders of the four Russia-installed regions surprisingly announced the plans on Tuesday after a lightning counterattack in Ukraine reclaimed swathes of territory in northeastern Kharkiv that Russia occupied after invading the country on February 24.
The results are seen as an inevitable outcome in favor of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made it clear that they will not recognize the outcome.
A similar poll, conducted in Crimea after the 2014 Russian invasion, found 97 percent in favor of formal annexation in a vote that took place under the close watch of Russian soldiers and was not recognized by the international community.
The vote is seen as a major escalation of Ukraine’s seven-month-old war – in which thousands have been killed and millions displaced – because the merger would allow Moscow to claim it was defending its own territory.
“If these are all declared Russian territories, then they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so that they can fight without any reservations,” Serhiy Heidi, governor of the Luhansk region, told Ukrainian television.
Both referendums were condemned by the United Nations and world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as international bodies such as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the elections, said the results would have no legal force because they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards, and fighting continues in the areas where the elections are taking place.
“Everything is fake”
Local officials told RIA there would be no independent observers, and polling stations in Zaporizhia would be under heavy security.
Some residents continued to leave before voting. Yulia, who fled Melitopol and preferred to give her first name only for fear of reprisals, traveled to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhia, but left her parents behind.
She would tell Al Jazeera that they were part of a larger generation that was nostalgic for the Soviet Union, which collapsed more than 30 years ago and annexed Ukraine. Russia recognized the borders of post-Soviet Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
“I kept my children at home,” she said of life in the occupied city. There was a lot of pressure on them at school. They will be punished if they speak Ukrainian. I am afraid that I will not be able to return home because after the referendum people will need special permits to enter and exit.”
In the Donetsk and eastern Luhansk regions – the two self-declared republics that Putin recognized as independent just before the invasion – residents will have to answer whether they support “the entry of their republic into Russia,” according to TASS.
The question about the ballot papers in Kherson and Zaporizhia will be formulated differently: “Do you support secession from Ukraine, the formation of an independent state by the region and its accession to the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
“This is all a hoax. This is all a charade orchestrated by Putin,” Kurt Volcker, who was the US special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019 and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera. It will not change Ukraine’s determination to recover and restore territory. Nor will it harm the West’s determination to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression.”
Ukraine said the referendums were a sign of Russia’s weakness, not its strength.
Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, about 80 percent of Zaporizhia and only 60 percent of Donetsk.
A day after the two referendums were announced, Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists to reinforce Russian forces in Ukraine, and declared his readiness to use nuclear weapons to repel any attacks on Russian soil.
“Any decision that the Russian leadership may take does not change anything for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday.
“One of the things that we are acutely concerned with are the tasks ahead. This is the liberation of our country, the defense of our people and the mobilization of global support. [public opinion] to carry out those tasks.
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