Residents of four areas in Ukraine controlled by pro-Moscow forces have started voting in referendums to join Russia, polls widely condemned by the West as illegal and a harbinger of illegal annexation.
Votes in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya provinces, which represent about 15% of Ukraine’s territory, started Friday morning and are expected to last until Tuesday, according to Russia’s Tass news agency.
Russia-installed leaders announced plans for the vote on Tuesday, a challenge to the west that could greatly escalate the war. The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favor of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made it clear that they will not recognize the results.
Kiev launched a counter-offensive this month that has recaptured large swathes of territory, seven months after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, starting a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and damaged the global economy.
The referendums had been discussed for months by pro-Moscow authorities, but Ukraine’s recent victories led to a struggle from officials to schedule them.
With Putin also announcing compulsory military service this week to deploy 300,000 troops to battle in Ukraine, Moscow appears to be trying to gain the upper hand in the conflict.
Russia has claimed that the referendums were an opportunity for people in the region to express their views.
“From the very beginning of the operation … we have said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this year. week.
Ukraine says Russia plans to frame referendum results as a sign of popular support and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to the 2014 takeover of Crimea, which the international community has not recognized .
By including the four territories in Russia, Moscow could justify the military escalation needed to defend its territory. Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would use “all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, a clear reference to nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said.
“Entering Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, said in a Telegram message on Tuesday. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kiev and the West.”
A vote in favor of Russia is seen as inevitable in the vote starting Friday. The Crimean referendum in 2014, internationally criticized as rigged, had an official result of 97% in favor of formal annexation.
“If all this is declared Russian territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so that they can fight without reservation,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian TV.
The referenda have been denounced by world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as international bodies from NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. (OSCE).
The “mock referendums” are “illegal and illegal,” NATO said on Thursday.
The OSCE, which oversees the elections, said the results would have no legal force because they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards and the areas are not safe. There will be no independent observers and a large part of the pre-war population has fled.
Russia considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together form the partially occupied Donbas region in 2014, Moscow as independent states.
Ukraine and the West consider all parts of Ukraine held by Russian troops to be illegally occupied. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, with only about 60% of the Donetsk region in Russian hands.