The referenda in the Luhansk, Kherson and partially Russian-occupied regions of Zaporizhia and Donetsk were widely seen as a prelude to Moscow’s annexation of the regions. The vote, overseen by Russian-installed authorities, will run through Tuesday and will almost certainly go in the direction of the Kremlin.
Authorities in the Kherson region said residents of a small Moscow-controlled area of neighboring Mykolaiv province can also vote, and that small area was “incorporated” into Kherson until all of Mykolaiv was taken over by Russian forces.
Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegal attempt by Moscow to cut off much of the country stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move most of the world considered illegal.
For security reasons, election officials carried ballot papers to homes and set up mobile polling stations for the four-day voting period. Russian state television showed such an election team accompanied by a masked police officer with an assault rifle.
Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region, told The Associated Press that Russians and residents of Crimea have been brought to his city to encourage people to vote.
“The Russians see an overwhelming reluctance and fear to attend the referendum and are forced to take people with them… to create an image and an illusion of the vote,” he said.
“Groups of employees and Russians along with armed soldiers are doing a door-to-door survey, but few people open the doors for them.”
Voting also took place in Russia, where refugees and other residents of those regions cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader in the Donetsk region, called the referendum “a historic milestone.”
Legislator Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the Russian State Duma, said in an online statement to the regions: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”
Thousands attended pro-Kremlin demonstrations across Russia in support of the referendums, news agencies reported. “Long live the one, great, united Russian people!” one speaker told the large crowd at a central meeting and concert in Moscow entitled, “We Don’t Abandon Our Own.”
Luhansk governor Serhii Haidai accused officials of removing the names of people who voted against joining Russia. In online posts, Haidai also claimed that Russian officials threatened to kick in the doors of anyone who did not want to vote.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “appearance” referenda in a speech. He switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to tell Russian citizens that they were “thrown to their deaths” under President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization order on Wednesday.
“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. ‘Because you were quiet. Because you are quiet. And now it’s time for you to choose. For men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become crippled or to stay healthy. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons and grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”
Putin’s partial mobilization of reservists could add about 300,000 troops, his defense minister said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed false media reports about plans to rally up to 1.2 million troops.
In the vast country, men hugged their crying relatives before leaving as part of the call, raising fears that a wider trek could follow. Anti-war activists planned more protests on Saturday.
Other Russian men desperately tried to leave the country, buying up scarce plane tickets and causing hours or even days of traffic jams at some borders. The lines of cars were so long at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their vehicles and walked – just as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.
Russian authorities tried to assuage public fear over the call. Lawmakers on Friday introduced a bill to suspend or reduce loan payments for those enlisted, and the media emphasized that they would be paid the same as professional soldiers and their civilian jobs would be kept for them.
The Defense Department said many of those working in high-tech, communications or finance will be exempted, Tass news agency reported.
During the mobilization and referenda, the horrors of the conflict continued.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synyehubov and regional police chief Volodymyr Timoshko said at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izium showed signs of torture. Among them were the bodies of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some found with their hands tied behind their backs, they said.
Russian forces occupied Izium for six months before being driven out by a Ukrainian counter-offensive this month. The excavations, which began a week ago, are drawing to a close as researchers work to identify victims and how they died. There was a mobile DNA lab on the edge of the cemetery.
“Every body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.
Experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council also presented evidence of possible war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention centers, and expressed serious concern about extrajudicial killings the team was documenting in Kharkov and the Kiev regions. Chernihiv and Sumy.
While world opinion pushed Moscow deeper into isolation during the war, Russia lashed out against the West. US Ambassador Anataly Antonov said Friday at a conference in Moscow on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that Washington is trying to “bring Russia to its knees” and divide it into “several kingdoms” while keeping the country free of nuclear weapons and its permanent seat. deprives. at the UN Security Council.
In new reports of fighting, Ukraine’s presidential office said ten civilians were killed and 39 others injured in Russian shelling in nine regions. Fighting continued in the southern province of Kherson during the vote, it said, as Ukrainian troops launched 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition depots and weapons.
Heavy fighting also continued in the area around Donetsk, where Russian attacks were directed against Toretsk, Sloviansk and several smaller towns. Russian shelling at Nikopol and Marhanets on the western bank of the Dnieper River killed two people and injured nine.
In other developments, Kiev expelled the Iranian ambassador and reduced staff at the Iranian embassy in response to Tehran’s “supply of arms to Russia for war on Ukrainian territory,” said Oleh Nikolenko, a spokesman for the foreign ministry. Ukraine reported the shooting down of an Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drone that could be used for surveillance or to carry precision-guided weapons, adding that it destroyed four other Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.
Earlier Friday, Ukrainian officials said Russia had attacked the port city of Odessa with Iranian-made drones, killing one person.