A second day of so-called referendums on joining the Russian Federation took place in four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Moscow – votes dismissed as a sham by Ukraine, the West and the United Nations because they are illegal under international law.
The vote in the Russian-controlled regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and the Zaporizhzhya regions is being held amid the biggest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II goes against the United Nations Charter and is is taking place amid claims from some local officials that voters were being threatened and intimidated.
There are no independent observers and many pre-war residents have fled. The four regions make up about 15% of Ukraine, an area the size of Hungary.
The Ukrainian military general staff said on September 24 that “employees of the ‘election commissions’, accompanied by armed military personnel of the Russian Federation” were collecting signatures from local residents directly at their homes.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged the world to condemn “pseudo-referendums” aimed at annexing Ukrainian lands.
“The world will react absolutely rightly to pseudo-referendums – they will be condemned unequivocally,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address to the nation on September 23.
In the Ukrainian capital, around 100 people from the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donetsk region, gathered to protest against the referendum, covering themselves with Ukrainian flags and carrying posters “Mariupol, it’s Ukraine”.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden harshly condemned the move and warned that more sanctions would follow for Moscow.
“The Russian referendums are a sham — a false pretense to attempt to forcibly annex parts of Ukraine in flagrant violation of international law,” Biden said Sept. 23.
“We will work with our allies and partners to impose swift and severe additional economic costs on Russia,” he added in a statement.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the United States was ready to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia, at the same pace as its allies, if Moscow tried to annex more. of Ukrainian territory.
The hastily announced vote this week as Russia decreed a partial mobilization came as Ukrainian forces said they were reclaiming territory from Moscow-backed separatists in the very territories Russia wants to annex.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving certain occupied areas until the end of the five-day vote.
Polling stations will not operate until the fifth day, September 27, with officials citing security concerns.
Ukraine’s General Staff said in a Facebook post that on the ground, Russia “did not stop hitting civilian infrastructure and civilian homes.”
He added that during the night the city of Mykolaiv had been the target of rocket fire from the Russian occupiers, but no information on civilian casualties was initially available.
Ukraine’s presidential office said on September 24 that the latest Russian bombardment killed at least three people and injured 19. Oleksandr Starukh, the governor of the Zaporizhzhya region, said a Russian missile hit a building in the city of Zaporizhzhya, killing one person and injuring seven others.
Serhiy Hayday, Ukraine’s regional governor in Luhansk, said in a Telegram message that Russian authorities had banned people from leaving for several days to ensure the votes.
“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.
In Kherson, Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian deputy to the regional council, told RFE/RL on September 23 that polling stations opened by Russian-appointed officials in the region remained mostly empty, prompting them to start voting. going door to door collecting votes “at gunpoint”.
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Referendums have been condemned as illegitimate and choreographed precursors to illegal annexation.
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.
Zelenskiy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine referendums and share information about who is carrying out “this farce” and called on residents to try to avoid mobilization from Moscow.
“Hide from Russian mobilization by all means,” Zelenskiy said. “Avoid conscription letters. Try to get to the free territory of Ukraine.”
The announcement of the mobilization has sparked an exodus of capable Russian men rushing to leave the country to avoid conscription, with increased traffic at border crossings with Finland and Georgia and a spike in ticket prices plane from Moscow.
The Kremlin has also shown little desire to mask its true aim on the ballot, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters in Moscow on September 23 that he was “convinced” that Russia would move “quite quickly” to take control of the regions if the vote is successful. .
Incorporating the four zones would allow Moscow to present any attempt to take them over as an attack on Russia itself – potentially using this to justify even a nuclear response.
Ukraine said it would never agree to Russian territorial takeovers while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would step up aid to Kyiv in response to the “fictitious” referendum.
On September 23, the industrialized economies of the Group of Seven condemned the referendums as a “sham” without “legal effect or 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.
Moscow deported about 1.6 million Ukrainians from these regions to Russia, according to Western estimates, while also transporting Russian citizens to Ukrainian territory.
It also seized the personal and biometric data of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in so-called “filtration camps”, opening the door, experts say, to ballot box manipulation.
Nikolai Bulayev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said he expected “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 occupying Ukraine’s Crimea region. Very few countries accepted the results of the vote.
With reporting from Reuters, AP and AFP
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