‘Sham referendums’ held in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine

Such a move could give Moscow a pretext to escalate its faltering war, which could see Kyiv reclaim thousands of square kilometers of territory this month.

In a speech Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his speech, saying he would use “all the means at our disposal” if he deemed Russia’s “territorial integrity” at risk.

The vote, which is expected to take place over five days, was called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in Russian-held parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, with questions about the vote varying slightly depending on the region. Together, the four regions make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.

The plans, which are being held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by both the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West. The European Union has said it does not recognize the results and has indicated it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.

The outcome of “sham” secession referendums is “almost certainly already decided,” Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, said on Twitter on Friday. “There will be results published of what didn’t happen. I wonder if anyone will even be called to vote,” she wrote.

Putin supported the referendum in a speech to the nation on Wednesday. “The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbas and the civil-military administration of the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They asked Russia to support this step, and we emphasized that we will do everything to ensure safe conditions for people to express their will,” he said.

The separatist leaders in the four occupied regions said the referendums were underway on Friday as Ukrainian officials from occupied areas of the country accused pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics.

“The long-awaited referendum has begun, which is designed to restore the fair course of affairs in our country, to return peace to our homes, to consolidate the status of Donbas as part of our historical homeland – Russia,” Vladimir Bidyovka, head of the People’s Council of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said in a propaganda statement published on Telegram.

‘pseudo-referendum’

Ukrainian officials from the occupied territories accused pro-Russian forces on Friday of interrupting what should be a democratic process in the referendum on secession.

In both Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities urged people to vote at home, saying ballot boxes could be brought to them.

The Luhansk region is almost completely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But it remains contested – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.

Traffic jams and despair at the border as Russians flee Putin & # 39;  partial mobilization & # 39;

The Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region on Friday said “Russians will calculate and sign any result that is favorable to them” in what he described as a “pseudo-referendum.”

“The opinion of the population has no importance,” Serhii Hayday said on Telegram, adding that an “armed man is involved in every polling station, whose appearance should force people to cast their vote courageously.”

In Mariupol, which is in the Donetsk region, “the main means of coercion for votes is door-to-door recruitment,” Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, said on Telegram.

“The commission consists of two people with a ballot box and ballot papers, and two armed men,” he said. “They knock on the doors of apartments/houses, force neighbors to let people come to the committee. Coercion, coercion and more coercion. In fact, they offer to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right at the barrel of a gun saying.”

Andriushchenko is not in town but has been a reliable channel for information from Mariupol. CNN is unable to independently verify his and other characterizations.

A woman casts her ballot in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 23, 2022.

“The polling stations are located in shops and cafes,” Andriushchenko said. “However, they are empty. There are no usual facilities like polling stations there. The brand is made under the close supervision of armed people. This is what Russian democracy looks like.”

Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told CNN that the effort being carried out in his region has shown a very small turnout.

“Most people are determined not to go,” he said. “That’s why this door-to-door idea was created, because if armed people come to your home, it will be difficult and dangerous to even refuse to vote.”

He said the United Russia political party – the ruling party in Russia – has been campaigning for secession while also handing out food parcels to residents.

The Ukrainian mayor-in-exile of Melitopol – which is in Zaporizhzhia region, and occupied by Russia – also urged residents to boycott the vote.

A ‘historic crime’

Observers say it seems unlikely that such a hasty process, in areas where many voters live near the front lines of the conflict, can be successful or fair. In addition, due to widespread internal displacement since the beginning of the conflict, vote databases are likely to be out of date. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials have said that about half of the pre-war population has left.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors elections, condemned what it said were “illegal referenda”.

A referendum organized in Crimea in 2014, which officially annexed 97% of voters, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.

This time some regions are planning to announce the results earlier than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after voting, while in Kherson authorities will wait five days after the polls close.

A man from the Luhansk region, who lives in Russia, votes on Friday at a temporary accommodation facility in Volgograd, Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated on Friday that if the regions announce majorities for joining Russia, the ratification process would be fast, saying they could become part of the Russian Federation “very soon”.

Asked if that would mean any attempt by Ukraine to reclaim the territories would be considered an attack on Russian territory, Peskov said: “Of course.”

Imprisoned Kremlin critic and Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny called the referendums and Putin’s “partial mobilization” of citizens for his war in Ukraine a “historic crime” in a court speech on Friday.

Navalny filed an administrative lawsuit against the administration of penal colony number 6 in the Vladimir region.

“This involves hundreds of thousands of people in the crimes Putin is committing,” the opposition leader said.

“He is like the mafia, you know? It is binding by blood hundreds of thousands of people with this mobilization and these fake referendums,” added Navalny.

CNN’s Anna Chernova contributed to this report.