Russia began referendums on Friday aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, raising the stakes of the seven-month-old war in what Kyiv called an illegal sham that saw residents threatened with punishment if they did not vote.
The votes on whether the regions should become part of Russia began after Ukraine earlier this month recaptured large swathes of northeastern territory in a counteroffensive. Russia’s war has killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions and pummelled the global economy.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing this week a military draft to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the grinding conflict.
And by incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, a warning to Kyiv and Western supporters.
Putin on Wednesday said Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, an allusion to nuclear weapons.
The referendums had been discussed for months by Moscow-installed authorities in the four regions – in Ukraine’s east and southeast – but Kyiv’s recent battlefield victories prompted a scramble to schedule them.
Voting in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, representing about 15% of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to Tuesday.
Serhiy Gaidai, Ukraine’s Luhansk region governor, said that in the town of Starobilsk, Russian authorities banned the population from leaving the city until Tuesday and armed groups had been sent to search homes and coerce people to get out to take part in the referendum.
“Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors,” said Yuriy Sobolevsky, the displaced Ukrainian first deputy chairman of the Kherson regional council, said on messaging app Telegram.
The referendums have been condemned by Ukraine, Western leaders and the United Nations as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to illegal annexation. There will be no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal bearing as they do not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and the areas are not secure.
REPORTS OF COERCION, PANIC
Gaidai said that in the Russian-held town of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees voting was compulsory and anyone refusing to take part would be fired and their names given to security services.
“The mood of the Russians is panicky because they were not ready to carry out so quickly this so-called referendum, there is no support, there’s not enough people,” Kherson’s Sobolevsky said on messaging app Telegram.
Gaidai decried the plebiscites as “elections without elections”. He said people were being forced to fill out “pieces of paper” without privacy in kitchens and residential yards, with towns sealed off so people could not leave to avoid voting.
Russia maintains that the referendums offer an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.
“Voting has started in the referendum on Zaporizhzhia region becoming a part of Russia as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation! We are coming home!” said Vladimir Rogov, an official in the region’s Russian-backed administration.
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and will fight until the last Russian soldier is ejected.
“(The referendums) will give Moscow no upper hand. It’s all nonsense, bluff, and political manipulation to frighten us and the Western countries with their nuclear stuff,” Oleksandr Yaroshenko, 65, a resident in the capital Kyiv, told Reuters.
Voting was also being held for residents who have fled occupied territories at some 20 polling stations in Moscow, including the embassy of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian lawmaker said.
Ukraine says Russia intends to frame the referendum results as a sign of popular support, and then use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognised.
Hinting at the Kremlin’s strategic calculation in staging the referendums, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of its national security council, warned Moscow would henceforth deem any attack on the four territories as one on Russia itself.
For “self-defence”, any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used, he said.
Despite the plan to mobilise reservists, Putin maintains Russia is only carrying out a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Russia from NATO.
Kyiv and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked, imperialist bid to reconquer a country that shook off Russian domination with the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians and says accusations to that effect are a smear campaign.
Independent investigators commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council said on Friday they concluded war crimes have occurred in Ukraine, where they focused on areas earlier held by Russia such as around Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is also pursuing war crimes investigations in Ukraine.