Russia begins phased referendum in occupied regions of Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine – Moscow began holding referendums on joining Russia in its occupied regions of Ukraine on Friday, an effort widely seen as a spoof. expected to culminate in annexation of an area larger than Portugal.

While the Kremlin has used referendums and annexations in the past to show its will, President Vladimir Putin’s boldness in Ukraine far exceeds anything it has tried before. . A large number of people have fled areas controlled by Russia, the process has been rushed and the referendums are taking place amid oppression – with UN experts cite evidence of war crimes in a powerful new statement.

The ballots being distributed had one question: Do you want to secede from Ukraine and form an independent state that joins the Russian Federation?

“We will be able to make our historic choice,” Kirill Stremousov, a leader of the Russian occupation administration in the southern Kherson region, said in a statement.

He said the wording on the ballot papers – in both Ukrainian and Russian – was “in line with international law”, but even before the first vote, the referendum plan was met with controversy. international judgment.

President Bidenaddressed the United Nations General Assembly this week, saying that “if nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences,” the global security order is designed to prevent fear. The horrors of the Second World War would repeat itself at stake.

Russian proxies in four regions – Donetsk and Luhansk to the east, and Kherson and Zaporizka to the south – announced earlier this week plans to hold referendums over four days starting on Thursday. Six. Russia controls almost all of two of the four regions, Luhansk and Kherson, but only a small part of the other two, Zaporizka and Donetsk.

Ukrainian officials dismissed the vote as grotesque theater – the votes were staged in cities abandoned by Russian troops and abandoned by most residents. President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Ukraine’s allies for their steadfast support and said the “farce” of the “fake referendum” would do nothing to change his nation’s fight to dislodge Russia from Ukraine.

Ukrainian parties, sometimes working with special operations forces, blew up vote depots and buildings where Russian proxies preparing for the vote held meetings .

An explosion rocked the Russian-controlled southern city of Melitopol on Friday morning before the vote got underway. Ivan Fedorov, the mayor in exile, warned people to stay away from Russian military personnel and equipment.

For broad participation, minors aged 13 to 17 have been encouraged to vote, Ukraine’s Security Service warned on Thursday.

And Ukrainian officials say workers are being forced to vote at the risk of losing their jobs.

Exile mayor of the occupied city of Enerhodar, the satellite town of Zaporizhzhia . nuclear power plant in the south, asking residents to stay away from polling stations.

“Stay at home if possible and don’t open the door to strangers,” he said in a message posted on Telegram.

Olha, who socialized with friends in Enerhodar on Thursday night and, like everyone else, did not want to use her full name out of concern for her safety, said preparations were underway. for weeks and security was tight.

“Since yesterday, they are not allowing men between the ages of 18 and 35 to leave the city,” she said. “They want to transfer them to the Russian armed forces. And the Ukrainians will have to fight the Ukrainians,” she said, pausing as she burst into tears.

People in the occupied areas as well as Ukrainian officials expressed concern: one of the first consequences of the annexation would be Ukrainians joining the Russian army. Such is the case with the Luhansk and Donetsk regions occupied by Russia since 2014.

Andriy, 44, who has friends and relatives in Kherson, said he spoke to friends who said he couldn’t leave the city because of the referendum. “You know, smart people, they sit at home and don’t go anywhere,” he said.

Anna Lukinova and Maria Varennikova Reporting contributions from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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