Voting began in hastily organized and hotly contested referendums in four occupied regions of Ukraine to become part of Russia.
State media in Moscow said voting began – in the “liberated territories” of Luhansk, Kherson and the partially Russian-controlled regions of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk – at 8 a.m. local time.
The results are expected to be announced on Tuesday and are expected to significantly escalate the seven-month war.
Moscow has continually warned this week that it will consider the regions, if they vote for membership, part of Russia and any attack on them will be considered an attack on any other part of the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders have even raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons to defend the regions, warning “this is not a bluff”.
They come just days after Putin ordered the partial mobilization of Russians for the war effort, which could add around 300,000 Russian troops to the fight.
The votes were widely denounced by Ukraine and the West as shams without any legal force. Western leaders said they would not recognize the results.
Russia, which has lost ground in the war in recent weeks, does not fully control any of the four regions and much of the population has fled due to the conflict.
A Ukrainian official on Friday called on residents not to go to the polls, saying that “participating in a pseudo-referendum is the worst betrayal”.
Ivan Fedorov, the deposed Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, which is part of Zaporizhzhia province, also said on Telegram that a loud explosion was heard by residents of the city center an hour before voting began.
“People are afraid to leave their homes,” Fedorov said.
Serhiy Gaidai, Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, said that in the Russian city of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees that voting was compulsory and that anyone who refused to participate would be fired and their names given to the services. of security.
He said that in the city of Starobilsk, Russian authorities had banned people from leaving the city until Tuesday and that armed groups had been sent to search homes and force people out to take part in the referendum.
“The Russians’ mood is panicked because they weren’t ready to hold this so-called referendum so quickly, there’s no support, there’s not enough people,” Yuriy said. Sobolevsky, Ukrainian first vice-president moved from the Kherson regional council. said on the Telegram messaging app.
The votes appear to be going Moscow’s way, but British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley told the United Nations on Thursday that Putin was aiming to “fabricate the outcome of these referendums”.
The referendums have also been denounced as an illegal farce by US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the elections, said the results would have no legal significance as they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards and the areas are not secure.
During the vote, election officials will bring ballots to people’s homes and set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings, according to Russian officials in occupied areas, who cited security concerns.
Tuesday will be the only day voters will be asked to go to the regular polling stations.
Polling stations have also been opened in Russia, where refugees from occupied regions can vote. Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum a “historic milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions in an online statement on Friday, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you .
Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s top parliament, said people in occupied regions vote for “life or death” in referendums.
As voting began in occupied regions, Russian social media sites were full of dramatic scenes of tearful families bidding farewell to men leaving military mobilization centers.
In towns across the country, men hugged their crying family members before leaving on the project. Meanwhile, Russian anti-war activists have planned new protests against the mobilization.
Ukraine says Russia intends to present the referendum results as a sign of popular support and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognized.
The Independent Gt