As four occupied regions of Ukraine began holding contentious referendums on whether to join Russia on Friday, Russian men continued to flee the country following President Vladimir Putin’s plans to raise more troops to reinforce its failing invasion of its little neighbor.
The vote in the occupied Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson has already been condemned as a sham by Kyiv and its Western allies, including the United States.
Friday was the first day of a five-day voting period in the regions after their Russia-based officials rushed to announce the referendums earlier this week.
Russian state news agency Tass reported that for “security reasons”, election officials were bringing the ballots to people’s homes. Voting at the actual polling stations would only take place on the last day. He added that polling stations had also been set up in Russia for Ukrainian residents who had been evacuated there.
Questions on the ballots will ask voters whether their regions should join Russia, the news agency said, adding that there was no mention of an option to remain as part of Ukraine.
Voting will end on Tuesday, but the result is almost guaranteed to go Moscow’s way. The United States and its Western allies said Russia was likely to manipulate the results and use them as a pretext to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory.
Moscow-backed officials in the occupied areas celebrated the election. Denis Pushilin, a Moscow-backed separatist leader in Donetsk, called the referendum a “historic milestone” in a video recording on Friday, adding: “We are going home.”
The rush to hold referendums is widely seen as Putin’s attempt to maintain control of the occupied regions amid Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield and a lightning counteroffensive in the northeast in the early month.
If the regions vote to join Russia, Moscow is likely to claim them as part of its territory. Putin warned this week that he could resort to the use of nuclear weapons if Russia’s territorial integrity was threatened, which could mean that any Ukrainian effort to retake annexed regions could precipitate a nuclear confrontation.
At the start of voting on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow would view any Ukrainian attempt to return regions holding referendums as an attack on Russia, if they vote to join the country, Tass said. .
Meanwhile, Russian media reported clogged airports as flights to neighboring countries sold out following Putin’s order for partial mobilization to reinforce his troops in Ukraine. With few details in order, the men of fighting age were left with more questions than answers about who exactly could be recruited to serve in Ukraine.
Long queues were building up at Russia’s land borders with neighboring Finland, Reuters reported, citing Finnish officials. Finland’s land border crossings are among the few entry points into Europe for Russians after many Western countries banned their entry after the Feb. 24 invasion. On the other hand, the German Minister of the Interior said Thursday that the country could consider welcoming Russians fleeing conscription.
“Putin’s contempt for humanity does not stop with his own soldiers, whom he sends into this murderous war against the Ukrainian civilian population”, Nancy Faeser tweeted. “Deserters who are threatened with severe repression therefore generally receive international protection in Germany.”
After the mobilization was announced on Wednesday, videos began circulating on Russian social media sites showing tearful goodbyes as the men had to report for work. NBC News was able to verify a video showing women and children crying as they hugged men boarding buses at what appeared to be a mobilization point in Russia’s far eastern Sakha region.
Another video verified by NBC News showed what appears to be a military recruiter arguing with a dozen men over the mobilization effort in the Babayurtovsky district of the Russian republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus.
Some men in the crowd can be heard saying they are unwilling to fight a war that is about “politics”.
As Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sought to reassure the Russian public that only a limited group of people with military experience and specialists would be recruited into the mobilization, many took to social media to wonder if the government would stay true to its word. Many of the posts used the word “mogilization,” an amalgamation using the Russian word “mogila,” which means “grave.”
On Friday, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called the mobilization “criminal”.
Some lawyers have shared detailed guides online on how to avoid mobilization and what to do if someone is called but does not want to serve.
The Kremlin has dismissed reports of Russian men fleeing mobilization as “exaggerated”, and the Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that some 10,000 volunteers had already signed up without waiting to be called up. Putin’s order aims to recruit some 300,000 additional troops.
The order comes as his military campaign in Ukraine struggles. Many foreign leaders decried it as an act of desperation as his troops were demoralized and exhausted by humiliating setbacks and logistical challenges. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday it was a sign that war, which once seemed distant, has now “entered every Russian home”.
Reuters, Carlo Angerer and Matthew Mulligan contributed.