KYIV: Russia began referendums on Friday aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, raising the stakes of the seven-month-old war in what Kyiv called a sham that saw residents threatened with punishment if they did not vote.
The votes on whether the regions should become part of Russia began after Ukraine earlier this month recaptured large swathes of north-eastern territory in a counter-offensive against the invasion that began on Feb 24.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing a military draft this week to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the grinding conflict.
And by incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, a warning to Kyiv and Western supporters.
Putin said on Wednesday Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, an allusion to nuclear weapons.
The war has already killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions and pummelled the global economy.
The referendums had been discussed for months by Moscow-installed authorities in the four regions — in Ukraine’s east and south-east — but Kyiv’s recent battlefield victories prompted a scramble to schedule them.
Voting in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, representing about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to Tuesday.
Serhiy Gaidai, Ukraine’s Luhansk region governor, said that in the town of Starobilsk, Russian authorities banned the population from leaving the city until Tuesday and armed groups had been sent to search homes and coerce people to get out to take part in the referendum.
“Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors,” said Yuriy Sobolevsky, the displaced Ukrainian first deputy chairman of the Kherson regional council, on messaging app Telegram.
The referendums have been condemned by Ukraine, Western leaders and the United Nations as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to illegal annexation. There will be no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.
Gaidai said that in the Russian-held town of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees voting was compulsory and anyone refusing to take part would be fired and their names given to security services.
“The mood of the Russians is panicky because they were not ready to carry out so quickly this so-called referendum, there is no support, there’s not enough people,” Kherson’s Sobolevsky said on messaging app Telegram.
Gaidai decried the plebiscites as “elections without elections”. He said people were being forced to fill out “pieces of paper” without privacy in kitchens and residential yards, with towns sealed off so people could not leave to avoid voting.
Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2022