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Four occupied Ukraine regions begin vote on joining Russia | Russia-Ukraine war News

Referendums have begun in four districts of Russian-occupied Ukraine, which Kyiv has condemned as illegal and which are seen as paving the way for Moscow to formally annex about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.

Voting in Lugansk and Donetsk self-proclaimed “independent republics” controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, as well as in the south of Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, will last until September 27.

The voting process in the four regions will be unconventional, according to the Russian TASS news agency.

“Given the tight deadlines and the lack of technical means, it was decided not to conduct electronic voting and use traditional paper ballots,” the message says.

Authorities will go door-to-door for the first four days to collect votes, and polling stations will only open on the last day to allow residents to vote.

The Russian-appointed leaders of the four regions abruptly announced their plans on Tuesday after a lightning-fast Ukrainian counteroffensive recaptured chunks of territory in northeast Kharkiv that Russia had occupied since the Feb. 24 invasion of the country.

The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favor of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made it clear they will not accept the result.

A similar referendum held in Crimea after the Russian invasion in 2014 showed 97% of the vote in favor of a formal annexation in a vote closely watched by Russian soldiers and not recognized by the international community.

The vote is seen as a significant escalation of the seven-month war in Ukraine, in which thousands have been killed and millions displaced, because joining would allow Moscow to claim it is defending its territory.

“If this is all declared Russian territory, they can announce that this is a direct attack on Russia so that they can fight without any reservations,” Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, told Ukrainian television.

The referendums have been condemned by the United Nations and world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as international organizations such as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

A row of clean ballot boxes laid out on a table at a polling station, at which sit members of the local election commission of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
Voting is due to start on Friday in referendums that Kyiv has condemned as illegitimate. There will be no bystanders to ensure a free and fair vote. [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

The OSCE, which monitors the elections, said the results will not be legally binding because they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards, and fighting continues in areas where the elections are taking place.

“All pretend”

There will be no independent observers, and polling stations in Zaporozhye will be under heavy guard, local officials told RIA Novosti.

Some residents continued to leave before the vote. Yuliya, who fled Melitopol and preferred to give only her first name for fear of reprisals, traveled to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporozhye, but left her parents behind.

She told Al Jazeera that they belong to an older generation nostalgic for the Soviet Union that collapsed over 30 years ago, including Ukraine. Russia recognized the post-Soviet borders of Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

“I kept my children at home,” she said of life in the occupied city. “There was too much pressure on them at school. They would be punished if they spoke Ukrainian. I’m afraid I won’t be able to return home because after the referendum people will need special passes to enter and exit.”

In the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions — self-proclaimed republics that Putin recognized as independent shortly before the invasion — residents will have to respond if they support “the entry of their republic into Russia,” TASS reports.

The question on the ballots in Kherson and Zaporozhye will be formulated differently: “Are you in favor of secession from Ukraine, for the formation of an independent state by the region and its entry into the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”

“It’s all a sham. This is all a farce orchestrated by Putin,” Kurt Volker, who was the U.S. special envoy to the Ukraine talks from 2017 to 2019 and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think that this will somehow affect the situation on the ground and will not change Ukraine’s resolve to restore and return the territories. It also won’t hurt the West’s resolve to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.”

A military vehicle drives down the street with a billboard that reads: "With Russia forever, September 27"on the eve of the referendum in Lugansk
A billboard above a street in Luhansk reads: “Forever with Russia, September 27” ahead of a vote that starts Friday and runs through Tuesday. [File: AP Photo]

Ukraine said the referendums were a sign of Russian weakness, not strength.

Russia controls most of Lugansk and Kherson, about 80 percent of Zaporozhye, and just 60 percent of Donetsk.

The day after the referendum was announced, Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists to support Russian troops in Ukraine and said he was ready to use nuclear weapons to repel any attacks on Russian territory.

“Any decision that the Russian leadership can make changes nothing for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday.

“We are interested in the tasks facing us. This is the liberation of our country, the protection of our people and the mobilization of world support. [public opinion] to accomplish these tasks.”

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