On the second day, so-called referendums on accession to the Russian Federation will be held in four regions of Ukraine partially occupied by Moscow.
The vote in the Russian-controlled areas of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions, being held amid the biggest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, violates the UN charter and comes amid claims by some local officials that Voters were threatened and intimidated.
There are no independent observers and many of the pre-war residents have fled. The four regions represent about 15 percent of Ukraine, or an area the size of Hungary.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s military said on September 24 that “employees of the ‘election commissions’, accompanied by armed soldiers of the military of the Russian Federation,” collected signatures from local residents right in their homes.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the world to condemn “pseudo-referendums” aimed at annexing Ukrainian lands.
“The world will respond absolutely fairly to pseudo-referendums – they will be unequivocally condemned,” Zelenskyy said in his late-night address to the nation on Sept. 23.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden sharply condemned the move and warned that further sanctions against Moscow would follow.
“Russia’s referendums are a sham – a false pretext to try to forcibly annex parts of Ukraine in a flagrant violation of international law,” Biden said Sept. 23.
“We will work with our allies and partners to quickly impose additional and heavy economic costs on Russia,” he added in a statement.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the United States stands ready, in lockstep with allies, to impose additional economic penalties on Russia should Moscow attempt to annex more Ukrainian territory.
The vote, hastily announced this week as Russia ordered partial mobilization, came as Ukrainian forces said they would retake territory from Moscow-backed separatists in the very areas Russia wants to annex.
Ukrainian officials said people are banned from leaving some occupied territories until the five-day vote is over.
Polling stations will only be operational on the fifth day, September 27, for security reasons.
Ukraine’s General Staff said in a Facebook post that Russia “didn’t stop attacking civilian infrastructure and civilian homes.”
It added that the city of Mykolayiv was hit by rocket fire from Russian occupiers during the night, but information on civilian casualties was initially unavailable.
Ukraine’s Presidential Office said on September 24 that the latest Russian shelling killed at least three people and wounded 19. Oleksandr Starukh, the governor of the Zaporizhia region, said a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the city of Zaporizhia, killing one person and injuring seven others.
Serhiy Hayday, Ukraine’s regional governor in Luhansk, said in a post on telegram that the Russian authorities prevented people from leaving the country for several days in order to secure votes.
“We have reports from people that the so-called ‘electoral commissions’ who come to the homes to record the polls are accompanied by people with guns… If the doors to the homes are not opened, they threaten to break them open,” he said, adding that anyone who voted “no” was written into a ledger by the commissioners.
In Kherson, Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian deputy in the regional council, told RFE/RL on September 23 that polling stations opened by Russian-appointed officials in the region have remained mostly empty, prompting them to go door-to-door to collect votes “at gunpoint”.
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The referendums were condemned as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to illegal annexation.
The move comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 a partial military mobilization amid what appeared to be heavy personnel losses in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that Moscow began in February.
Zelenskyy called on Ukrainians in the Occupied Territories to undermine referendums and share information about the people who are staging “this farce,” and urged residents to try to avoid Moscow’s mobilization.
“Hide by all means from the Russian mobilization,” Zelenskyy said. “Avoid conscription letters. Try to get into the free territory of Ukraine.”
The mobilization announcement has sparked an exodus of able Russian men scrambling to flee the country to avoid conscription, with traffic spiking at the border crossings with Finland and Georgia and airline ticket prices from Moscow skyrocketing.
The Kremlin has also shown little inclination to hide its true objective throughout the vote. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on September 23 that he was “confident” that Russia would proceed with taking over the regions “rather quickly” if the vote was successful.
The incorporation of the four territories would allow Moscow to present any attempt to retake them as an attack on Russia itself – possibly even to justify a nuclear response.
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian territorial takeovers, while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will step up its aid to Kyiv in response to the “sham” referendum.
The Group of Seven Industrialized Nations condemned the September 23 referendums as a “sham” lacking “legal effect or legitimacy”.
“We will never recognize these referenda, which appear to be a step towards Russian annexation, and we will never recognize an alleged annexation if it comes to one,” the G7 leaders said in a statement.
According to Western estimates, Moscow has deported about 1.6 million Ukrainians from these regions to Russia, while at the same time busing Russian citizens into Ukrainian territory.
It has also confiscated the personal and biometric data of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in so-called “filtration camps,” opening the floodgates to vote-rigging, experts say.
Nikolai Bulayev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said he expected “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainians currently in Russia to take part in the referendum.
Russia has little experience of holding free and fair elections, with ballot intimidation, voter intimidation, flagrant fraud and media manipulation being common practices. It held a similar illegal vote in 2014 after occupying Ukraine’s Crimea region. Very few countries have accepted the results of the vote.