The authorities faithful to Moscow in the occupied regions of Ukraine began this Friday referendums on annexation to Russia, considered illegal by kyiv and its Western allies, who will not recognize their results.
Voting in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk and in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia began at 05:00 GMT, Russian news agencies said, and will last for five days.
These referendums add tension to a week marked by the mobilization of 300,000 reservists announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also threatened to use his nuclear arsenal to protect his territory.
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A hypothetical integration into Russia of these four regions, which observers take for granted, would imply that Moscow, following its doctrine, could use its atomic weapons to defend them from the counteroffensive launched by Ukraine in the east and south of the country.
“We cannot let President Putin get away with it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a UN Security Council meeting, accusing Putin of “adding fuel to the fire.”
“The international order that we are here trying to save is being shattered before our eyes,” he added.
The referendums recall what happened in 2014 in the Crimean peninsula, annexed to Russia, after a vote considered fraudulent by Western capitals.
This week, after these votes were called on Tuesday, Western leaders denounced their illegitimate nature.
At the UN, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the accusations and blamed the “Nazi totalitarian state” in kyiv for the situation.
“There is an attempt to impute to us a completely different narrative about Russian aggression as the origin of this tragedy,” he said.
In the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, recognized as independent nations by Moscow just before the invasion, residents will have to answer if they support “entry into Russia”, according to the Russian agency TASS.
In Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, the ballots include the question: “Are you in favor of the secession of Ukraine, the formation of an independent state and its joining the Russian Federation as a member of the Russian Federation?”
The process will be private. The authorities will collect votes door-to-door the first four days of the referendum and only on the last day, Tuesday, will the polling stations open.
Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the self-proclaimed Lugansk republic, said he had been waiting for this vote since 2014, when the pro-Russian rebellion began in this region and neighboring Donetsk.
“It is our common dream and future,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the referendums a “farce” and thanked his Western allies for condemning “another Russian lie” in a video released Thursday.
Flight by Russian mobilization
A hypothetical annexation would mean a further escalation in the conflict, especially after Putin said that he would protect the Russian territory with “all means”.
The former president and current number two of the country’s Security Council, Dmitri Medvedev, pointed out that this implied the use of “strategic nuclear weapons”.
At the same time, Russia on Thursday began the mobilization of its reservists announced by Putin after major setbacks this month in the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
The Russian military said at least 10,000 people volunteered in the 24 hours after the announcement, which also sparked demonstrations in several cities that resulted in more than 1,300 arrests.
Several media reported an avalanche of people who tried to leave the country.
Flights to neighboring nations, especially the former Soviet republics that offer visa-free entry to Russians, are nearly full and prices skyrocketing.
“I don’t want to die in this senseless war. It’s a fratricidal war,” said Dmitri, a 45-year-old man with a small suitcase, interviewed at the airport in Yerevan, the capital of nearby Armenia.
Most of the passengers on the last flight between Moscow and Yerevan were made up of service-age men, many of them reluctant to speak.
Looking lost and exhausted, Sergei, 44, admits to having escaped possible recruitment with his son Nikolai, 17.
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“The situation in Russia made me decide to leave. Yes, we left Russia because of the mobilization,” he said.