A Kremlin-staged vote on joining Russia is taking place in occupied Ukraine

KYIV: Voting began on Friday on whether Ukraine’s occupied territories should become part of Russia in a referendum condemned by Kiev and the West as an illegal and bogus attempt by Moscow to annex areas in the east and south after nearly seven months of war.
During the vote, UN experts and Ukrainian officials cited new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Officials in the Kharkiv region said hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 with signs of torture, were found at the mass burial site in the eastern city of Izium.
Referendums organized by the Kremlin in Luhansk, Kherson and partly under Russian control Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk Oblasts asked residents if they wanted the regions to be part of Russia. The vote, which is expected to last until Tuesday under the supervision of the authorities installed in Moscow, is almost certain to pass The Kremlinfive.
Russian authorities in Kherson Oblast have announced that residents of a small Moscow-controlled area of ​​neighboring Mykolaiv Oblast will also be able to vote, and that this small area will be “merged” into Kherson Oblast until all of Mykolaiv is taken over by the Russians. power
Ukraine and the West condemned the vote as a sham and an illegal step towards annexing much of the country from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula. A similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world saw as illegal.
Election officials planned to bring ballots to homes and set up temporary polling stations near residential areas during the first four days of voting, Russian officials in the occupied territories said, citing security reasons. Russian state television showed teams of election officials going into a residential area on Friday morning, with one such team accompanied by a masked policeman carrying an assault rifle.
Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhia region, told The Associated Press that Russians and Crimeans were brought to his town to encourage people to vote.
“The Russians see an overwhelming reluctance and fear to participate in the referendum and are forced to bring people … to create an image and illusion of the vote,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians with armed soldiers conduct door-to-door inquiries, but few people open their doors.”
Polls were also opened in Russia where refugees and other residents of these regions could vote.
Deniss Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed Donetsk Oblast authorities, called the referendum a “historic milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, addressed the regions in an online statement, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”
The governor of Luhansk, Serhii Haidai, accused Russian officials of taking down the names of people who voted against it. In online postings, Haidai also claimed that Russian officials threatened to knock down the doors of anyone who did not want to vote, and shared photos of a couple of empty polling stations.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned the “fake” referendums in his address, where he switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to bluntly tell Russian citizens that they were being “thrown to death”.
“You are already complicit in all these crimes, the 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 Russian men, it’s a choice to die or live, to become disabled or to keep healthy. For Russian women, it’s a choice to lose forever their husbands, sons, grandchildren, or try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.
The vote comes amid ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to surrender.
Kharkiv Region Governor Oleh Synyehubov and Regional Police Chief, Volodymyr Tymoško, said that at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izium bore signs of torture. They said the bodies were 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some of whom were found with their hands tied behind their backs.
Russian forces occupied Izium for six months before a Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed them out of the area earlier this month. The forest burial site was discovered after residents say they were forced to dig graves there.
The excavations, which began a week ago, are winding down as investigators work to determine the victims and the cause of death. A mobile DNA lab was parked at the edge of the burial site.
“Every body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.
Experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council also presented evidence on Friday of possible war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention facilities, and expressed grave concern about the killings the group carried out in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions. Chernihiv and Sumy.
At the beginning of the referendum, more men in Russia were preparing to fight in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday, which the defense minister said could add about 300,000 troops.
In the big nation’s cities, men hugged their weeping family members before leaving, prompting fears that a wider draft could follow. Russian anti-war activists planned to stage a protest against the mobilization on Saturday.
According to the Office of the President of Ukraine, at least 10 civilians were killed and 39 wounded in nine regions of Ukraine by Russian shells in the last 24 hours.
It said fighting continued in southern Kherson during the vote, while Ukrainian forces carried out 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition depots and weapons in the region.
Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, where Toretsk, Slovyansk and several smaller towns were targeted by Russian attacks. Russian shells in Nikopol and Marhanets on the west bank of the Dnieper River killed two and wounded nine in Marhanets.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maljar said military casualties could exceed 9,000 soldiers because authorities do not yet know how many died in the three-month siege of Mariupol, which fell to the Russians in May.
However, Malyar said that Ukraine’s losses are much smaller than Russia’s. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that 5,937 Russian fighters were killed.