Voting began Friday in Ukraine’s Moscow regions for a referendum on becoming part of Russia, Russian-backed officials there said.
The referendums, organized by the Kremlin and widely condemned by Ukraine and the West as a sham with no legal force, are seen as a step towards annexation of the territories by Russia.
Voting will take place in Luhansk, Kherson, and partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
A vote asking residents whether they want their regions to be part of Russia is sure to go Moscow’s way. This would give Russia a pretext to claim that attempts by Ukrainian forces to regain control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month war.
The referendum follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for a partial mobilization that could add about 300,000 Russian troops to the battle. Voting will last five days until Tuesday.
As voting took place in the occupied territories, Russian social media sites were filled with dramatic scenes of tearful families saying goodbye to men leaving military mobilization centers. In the cities of the great nation, men hugged their weeping family members before leaving as part of the candidate. Meanwhile, Russian anti-war activists planned anti-mobilization protests.
Election officials will bring ballots to people’s homes and set up temporary polling stations near residential areas during the first four days of the referendum, Russians in the occupied territories say, citing security reasons. Tuesday is the only day when voters are invited to the regular polling stations.
Polls were also opened in Russia, where refugees from the occupied regions can cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed Donetsk Oblast authorities, called Friday’s referendum a “historic milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions in an online statement on Friday, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”
Valentina Matvijenko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that residents of the occupied regions voted for “life or death” in the referendums.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned the “fake referendum” in his nightly address, where he switched from Ukrainian to Russian to bluntly tell Russian citizens that they would be “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 men in Russia, it’s a choice to die or live, to become disabled or to maintain health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose forever their husbands, sons, grandchildren, or still try to protect them from death, war and one person.
The vote comes amid ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to surrender.
On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhia region reported a loud explosion in the center of Melitopol, a city captured by Moscow at the start of the war. Official Vladimir Rogov did not reveal details about the cause of the explosion and the damage and casualties.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the region’s capital city of Donetsk and the nearby town of Jasúvivata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, announced new Russian missiles in different regions of the country. Vitali Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine, which borders the Kherson region, said that there were explosions in the city of Mykolaiv early Friday morning.
Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said on Friday morning the Russians opened fire on Nikopol, a city across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.