KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Voting on a referendum on Ukraine’s Moscow-held regions to become part of Russia began Friday, Russia-backed officials said.
The Kremlin-orchestrated referendum, widely depicted by Ukraine and the West as a pretense of no legal force, is seen as a step towards annexation of territories by Russia.
The votes are being held in Luhansk, Kherson and partly in the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk regions.
The vote, which asks residents whether they want their regions to be part of Russia, is sure to go the way of Moscow. This would give Russia an excuse to claim that attempts to regain control by Ukrainian forces are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month war.
The referendum follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for partial mobilization, which could add some 300,000 Russian troops to the fighting. Voting will continue for five days till Tuesday.
As votes were underway in the occupied territories, Russian social media sites were flooded with dramatic scenes of tearful families bidding farewell to men departing military mobilization centers. In vast country cities, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the draft. Meanwhile, Russian anti-war activists planned further protests against the mobilization.
Election officials will bring ballots to people’s homes and set up temporary polling stations near residential buildings during the first four days of the referendum, according to Russian-established officials in the occupied territories, citing security reasons. Tuesday will be the only day that voters will be invited for regular voting.
Voting also began in Russia, where refugees from occupied territories can cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historic milestone” on Friday.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, said in an online statement on Friday, addressing the occupied territories: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation – we will support you.”
Valentina Matvienko, the Speaker of Russia’s Upper Parliament House, said residents of the occupied territories were voting “for life or death” in the referendum.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly referred to the “Sham referendum” in his nightly address, in which he switched from speaking in Ukrainian directly to Russian in telling Russian citizens that they would be “thrown to their death”. Used to be.”
“You are already a participant in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose. For men in Russia, it’s a choice to die or live, become crippled, or preserve health. For women in Russia, The alternative is to lose one’s husband, sons, grandchildren forever, or still try to save them from death, from war, from one person.”
The vote takes place against the backdrop of incessant fighting in Ukraine, in which Russian and Ukrainian armies exchanged fire as both sides refused to accede to the ground.
On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhzhya region reported a loud explosion in the center of Melitopol, a city that Moscow had occupied early in the war. Official Vladimir Rogov gave no details as to what caused the explosion and what damages and casualties were caused.
Moscow-backed officials in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the region’s capital, the city of Donetsk, and the nearby city of Yasinuvata.
In turn, the Ukrainian authorities reported new rounds of Russian shelling in different parts of the country. Vitaly Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, which borders the Kherson region, said explosions hit the city of Mykolaiv early Friday.
The governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentin Reznichenko, said Russians fired on Nikopol, a city across the Dnieper River, from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on Friday morning.
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