Staged Annexation Vote Starts in Russian-Occupied Areas of Ukraine
Russian officials opened polling stations on Friday in a staged election to annex the territory Russia controls in Ukraine, a move that Ukrainian and Western officials have derided as a sham by the Kremlin designed to deter further aid to Kyiv.
The result of the so-called referendums on whether four Ukrainian regions that Moscow at least partially controls should join the Russian Federation was in little doubt as polling places opened. After annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russian officials held a similar vote to confirm annexation. According to official results, 97% of voters cast ballots in favor of joining Russia.
Ballots were being collected in a variety of ways across the four Ukrainian regions. Polling stations were open in the Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson regions, according to reports by Russian-installed officials. Russian state television portrayed the vote as a success, showing images of people in Luhansk lined up with Russian flags waiting to cast their ballots.
In southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, officials are going door-to-door with ballot boxes and setting up mobile voting booths at workplaces. Russian media said the system was designed to avoid large gatherings of people in areas where combat was under way.
“On the streets of Melitopol, local residents staged a rally in support of the referendum on the reunification of the Zaporizhzhia region with Russia,” Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian-backed administration of that region, wrote on Telegram.
In the Kherson region, however, locals said they were not sure how or where voting was supposed to take place. One Russian-installed official said on Telegram that 198 polling places had been prepared, but didn’t disclose their locations, citing security concerns.
Residents also said the results of the voting were predetermined and vowed not to participate if they could avoid it.
“There were no announcements, no information about polling stations,” said one resident of Kherson, the regional capital. “I categorically refuse to take part.”
Serhii Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of the eastern Luhansk region, which is fully occupied by Russia, said that residents in some areas were being told that voting is mandatory. Residents in one area were threatened that if they don’t vote, they will immediately lose their jobs, he wrote on the Telegram social-media platform on Friday morning. In another area, locals were prohibited from leaving until after the so-called referendum ends on Tuesday.
Voting would also be allowed from inside some areas of Russia, according to state media, for people who had fled the fighting in Ukraine. Some 2.6 million Ukrainian refugees have entered Russia since the war began, according to the United Nations; some are Russian sympathizers while for others it was the only route to escape the combat.
The four regions that Russia is attempting to annex together represent about 15% of Ukrainian territory. By annexing the regions—and thereby calling them part of Russia—Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to deter Western countries from sending more military aid to Kyiv. Long-range rocket systems sent by the U.S. have played a key role in turning the momentum in the conflict in Ukraine’s favor.
Russia’s constitution would be activated immediately in any territories that join the federation, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov at a press conference in response to a question about the future defense of the regions where the votes are taking place. He added that the constitution spells out defense issues when it comes to Russian territory.
The Kremlin has timed the votes to coincide with other escalations of the country’s war effort, after Ukraine reclaimed about 3,500 square miles of territory earlier this month in a flash offensive that exposed the frailties of the Russian army.
“Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity—this is not a bluff,” he said in the speech.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday the Kremlin’s attempts to annex the occupied territory were a “dangerous escalation,” and called on the members of the United Nations Security Council to “send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.”
“This is a diabolical strategy, violently uprooting thousands of Ukrainians, bus in Russians to replace them, call a vote, manipulate the results to show near unanimous support for joining the Russian Federation,” Mr. Blinken said. “This is right out of the Crimea playbook.”
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said that any votes Russia might hold in the occupied territories would have no effect on their military operations. In his nightly address on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his position that he wouldn’t negotiate with Moscow until Russian forces had withdrawn entirely from Ukrainian land.
“Any decisions of the Russian leadership do not change anything for Ukraine,” he said. “We should care only about our tasks. This is the liberation of our country, the protection of our people and the mobilization of global support for the implementation of our tasks.”
Addressing Russians who might be called up to fight in Ukraine, he said, “Protest. Fight back. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for you to survive.”
Military analysts say the Russian draft is unlikely to have an effect on the war in the short term, as it will take months to form conscripts into battle-ready units. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote on Thursday that sending unwilling citizens, such as protesters, to Ukraine will only hurt the army’s already-flagging morale.
“The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization will likely exacerbate domestic resentment,” the institute wrote.
Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to make progress on the battlefield, according to the British Ministry of Defense, and recently established bridgeheads east of the Oskil River in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
“The battlefield situation remains complex, but Ukraine is now putting pressure on territory Russia considers essential to its war aims,” the ministry wrote.
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