The authorities installed by Russia in occupied regions of Ukraine began holding referendums to annex the regions to Russian territory on Friday in a vote that drew widespread international condemnation and dismissed the process as fake and with little legal standing.
Voting takes place in Ukraine’s Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk provinces – the latter two are only partially under Russian control.
The ballot papers contain only one question in Russian and Ukrainian asking “Do you want to secede from Ukraine and create an independent state entering the Russian Federation?” according to The New York Times Translation.
The whole process will take five days, with officials going door to door with ballots for the first four days while polling stations will only be set up on Tuesday.
Ukrainian and Western officials have warned that the results of the referendum are expected to be heavily rigged in favor of regions joining Russia.
On Telegram, the exiled Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, claimed that some votes were taken at gunpoint or under threat of job loss and arrest.
The referendum in Ukraine is taking place two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his official support and also ordered the recruitment of reservists in a bid to dramatically escalate the war.
In a joint statement, the G7 foreign ministers condemned the “sham referendums” saying: “Any referendums held under conditions of Russian military presence, intimidation, and forced deportations cannot be free or just. Any annexation of Ukrainian territory would be a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the Charter of the United Nations.” The United States … the G7 will also pursue more targeted sanctions and will adhere to continued economic and political pressure on Russia.”
In a Facebook video broadcast in Russian, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Russian people, telling them that 55,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict so far and tens of thousands have been wounded. He urges them to: “Protest, fight, escape or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are your options for survival.” “Because of the mobilization, Russia’s war against Ukraine for the majority of Russian citizens is not something on TV or on the Internet, but something that has entered every Russian home,” Zelensky added.
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While declaring his support for the referendum in Ukraine, Putin hinted that he is ready to use nuclear weapons if Russia’s “territorial integrity” is threatened, adding “it’s not a hoax.” This has raised concerns that Russia may use the referendums to justify its annexation of Ukrainian territory and then threaten severe retaliation against Kyiv – including the use of nuclear weapons – if it tries to reclaim the lost territories. Putin’s mobilization orders mean that Russian authorities in the annexed territories can also forcibly recruit Ukrainians in the region into their army.