Four Russian-occupied regions have begun voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders, a move that raises the stakes of an invasion by Moscow seven months after the fighting began.
The referendums, which are allegedly illegal under international law and dismissed by Western governments and Kyiv, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to brand the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive as an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move could give Moscow a pretext to escalate its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv regain thousands of square miles of territory this month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday, saying he would use “all means at our disposal” if he believed Russia’s “territorial integrity” was under threat.
The votes, to be held over five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the Russian-held parts of Kherson and Zaporozhye in the south, with questions on the ballot. varies slightly by region. Together, these four regions make up approximately 18% of the territory of Ukraine.
Held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, the plans have been strongly condemned by both Ukraine’s government and its allies in the West. The European Union said it would not recognize the results and indicated it was preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
Putin backed the referendums in a speech to the nation on Wednesday. “The parliaments of the People’s Republics of Donbas and the civil-military administration of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions have decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They have asked Russia to support this step, and we have emphasized that we will do everything to provide people with safe conditions for expressing their will,” he said.
Separatist leaders in the four occupied regions said referendums were underway on Friday, as Ukrainian officials from the occupied areas of the country accused pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics.
“The long-awaited referendum has begun, which is supposed to restore the fair course of affairs in our country, return peace to our homes, consolidate the status of Donbass as part of our historical homeland – Russia,” said Vladimir Bidyovka, the head of the People’s Council of self-proclaimed Donetsk said in a propaganda statement published on Telegram People’s Republic.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the regions could become part of the Russian Federation “fairly soon,” as he explained what steps Moscow would take if the regions announced a majority in favor of joining Russia.
Once the procedure of these territories being officially annexed to Russia is completed, Russian law will apply there, he said.
Asked if that would mean any attempt by Ukraine to regain territory would be considered an attack on Russian territory, Peskov said: “Of course.”
A Ukrainian representative from the occupied territories accused pro-Russian forces of subverting what was supposed to be a democratic process in the secession referendums on Friday.
In both the Luhansk and Zaporozhye regions, local authorities urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes could be brought to them.
The Luhansk region is almost completely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But it remains disputed – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.
In Mariupol, which is in the Donetsk region, “door-to-door agitation is the main means of coercion for the vote,” Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram.
“The commission consists of two people with a ballot box and ballot papers and two armed men,” he said. “They’re knocking on apartment/house doors, forcing neighbors to get people to commit to the commission. Pressure, pressure and more pressure. In fact, they’re offering to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right down the barrel of a gun.”
Andriushchenko is not in town, but he has been a reliable conduit for information from Mariupol. CNN is unable to independently verify his and other characteristics.
“Voting stations are located in shops and cafes,” Andriushchenko said. “However, they are empty. There are no usual facilities, such as polling stations. The brand is made under the strict supervision of armed people. This is what Russian democracy looks like.”
Yuriy Sobolevsky, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told that efforts in his region have shown very little participation.
“Most people are determined not to go,” he said. “That’s why this door-to-door idea came about, because when armed people come to your house, it’s going to be difficult and dangerous to even refuse to vote.”
Before the vote, pro-Russian authorities tried to excite voters. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed the poster distributed in Luhansk. It reads: “Russia is the future.”
“We are united by 1,000 years of history,” it says. “For centuries we have been part of the same great country. The collapse of the state was a huge political disaster… It is time to restore historical justice.”
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process in areas where many voters live close to the front lines of the conflict could be successful or fair. Additionally, due to extensive internal displacement since the beginning of the conflict, voting databases are likely out of date. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials said about half of the prewar population had left.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors the elections, condemned what it called “illegal referendums”.
“Any so-called ‘referendum’ planned by or supported by forces illegally exercising de facto control over the occupied territories of Ukraine would be contrary to international standards and obligations under international humanitarian law, and their outcome would therefore have no legal force,” the OSCE said , which monitors elections in 57 member states.
A referendum organized in Crimea in 2014, which officially saw 97% of voters against the annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
This time, some regions are planning to declare the results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after voting closed, while in Kherson authorities would wait five days after polling stations closed.
The Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region said on Friday that “the Russians will calculate and draw any result that is favorable to them” in what he called a “pseudo-referendum”.
“The opinion of the population is not important,” Serhii Hayday said in the Telegram, adding that “in every polling station there is an armed man whose appearance should make people humbly cast their vote.”
Before this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas had indicated that possible votes would be postponed because of the security situation — as Ukrainian forces push forward with offensives in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, and Russian positions and supply lines in Kherson come under almost daily strikes from Ukrainian artillery.
There was a sudden and synchronized change of heart at the beginning of this week.
Russian politicians have since been quick to offer their support, noting that when these regions join Russia — assuming the votes are in favor — they will be entitled to Moscow’s full protection.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev has said Russia will have a duty to protect these regions and that any attack on them will be regarded as an attack on Russia “with all its consequences”.
Former Russian President and vice-chairman of Russia’s National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev was more explicit, saying this would have “huge significance” for “systemic protection” of the residents and that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used to defend territories joined to Russia from Ukraine.
“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said.