Russia has begun staging sham referendums in occupied regions of Ukraine that are almost certain to end with Moscow declaring them to be part of the mainland.
‘Voting’ will last for five days, but for the first four of those residents will be unable to attend regular polling stations – instead, police and Russia officials will take papers door to door and will invite people to makeshift voting boots in residential areas.
Moscow claims this is for safety reasons to stop the voting stations being attacked, but in reality will provide ample opportunity for intimidation. Polls will also be opened within Russia itself, giving further opportunities for vote-rigging.
Tuesday next week will be the only opportunity for people in the occupied areas to attend regular polling stations, with preliminary results to be released Wednesday.
It is expected that all occupied areas will ‘vote’ to join Russia, almost certainly with 80 or 90 per cent of people ‘voting’ yes – as happened when the Kremlin staged a similar stunt in occupied Crimea in 2014.
Western leaders have declared the ballot to be a sham, saying they have no legitimacy and urging other governments not to recognise the results.
Putin has begun staging sham referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine that will almost certainly end with the regions being annexed to Russia
Makeshift voting stations have been set up in residential areas but police and occupation officials will also go door-to-door to ensure the outcome
World leaders have vowed to reject the ‘votes’, but they are still significant because they will allow Putin to spin the lie to his own people that Russia itself is under attack
However, the votes do still mark a significant moment in the war because it will allow Putin to spin the narrative to his own people that any Ukrainian attack to try and reclaim territory is actually an assault on Russia itself.
That expands the suite of options he can use in response.
Perhaps most worryingly, it opens the path to using nuclear weapons since Russia’s doctrine allows their use if the existence of the state is threatened.
It would also allow Putin to upgrade his ‘special military operation’ to a full-blown war, expanding his powers to conscript men and punish those who try to quit.
A copy of the ballot papers being handed to people, asking whether or not they agree to become part of Russia
This week, he has declared a ‘partial mobilisation’ of Russia’s population and appears intent on forcing hundreds of thousands of men into the military.
New laws have extended soldiers’ contracts indefinitely, meaning they cannot simply quit if they don’t want to keep fighting.
As the votes was getting underway in the occupied regions, Russian social media sites were full of dramatic scenes of tearful families bidding farewell to men departing from military mobilization centers.
In cities across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the draft.
Russian anti-war activists, in the meantime, planned more protests against the mobilization.
Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum on Friday ‘a historical milestone.’
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions Friday in an online statement, saying: ‘If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation – we will support you.’
Valentina Matviyenko, chair of Russia’s upper parliament house, said that residents of the occupied regions were voting for ‘life or death’ at the referendums.
Volodymyr Zelensky today called on Russians to ‘protest’ the partial mobilisation announced by Vladimir Putin, and told Kremlin troops in Ukraine to ‘fight back, run away or surrender’.
Votes are being held in four areas currently under Russian control – Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia
Russian officials in the occupied Kherson region prepare ballot papers for the referendum, which will last until Tuesday next week with results expected Wednesday
For the first four days of voting, people will either be expected to attend temporary voting stations set up in residential areas or vote as police come to their doors
In his daily address, Zelensky said: ‘55,000 Russian soldiers died in these six months of war. Do you want more? No? Then protest. Fight back, run away, or surrender’ to our army.’
Zelensky also told the Russian people today that are ‘complicit’ in Putin’s brutal invasion which has seen alleged torture and the murder of civilians as he then said conscripts had a choice to ‘live, die or become a cripple’ if they cannot stop being shoved off to the front lines.
All flights out of Russia to neighbouring areas that allow visa-free entry were nearly entirely booked today while prices also skyrocketed as the partial mobilisation, which so far applies to 300,000 military reservists, begins.
The Russian President’s call for thousands more troops yesterday was also accompanied by fresh threats of nuclear war towards Ukraine and its Western allies.
The voting takes place against the backdrop of incessant fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede ground.
On Friday morning, pro-Russia officials in the Zaporizhzhia region reported a loud blast in the center of Melitopol, a city that Moscow captured early on in the war.
Official Vladimir Rogov didn’t offer any details as to what caused the explosion and whether there was damage and casualties.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the city of Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby city of Yasynuvata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country.
Vladimir Putin is expected to use the sham votes to claim that Ukraine is attacking Russian soil, potentially opening the door to a nuclear escalation
Soldiers from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine queue up to vote in the referendum on becoming part of Russia
A bust of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin watches over soldiers in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic as they vote on becoming part of Russia
Soldiers of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, a Russian-backed pseudo-state, vote in the referendum which will take place until next week
Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine that borders the Kherson region, said explosions rang out in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.
Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said the Russians unleashed a barrage of shelling on Nikopol, a city across from the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, on Friday morning.
Russia is now almost seven months into what Putin anticipated would be a days-long war to depose the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime.
But instead he has found himself locked into a grinding war of attrition against a determined enemy backed by Western weapons and money.
China and India – both of whom had good relations with Putin before the war — have distanced themselves from his regime, while even North Korea has said it won’t supply arms to Russia because it will ‘tarnish’ its image.
More protests have been organised by anti-war groups, as opposition to the invasion grows.
There were also reports of a mass exodus following the announcement. On Thursday the Kremlin dismissed as ‘fake’ reports that Russians eligible for mobilisation were rushing for the exit.
Speaking in the House of Commons this afternoon, Armed Forces minister James Heappey described how ‘rattled’ Mr Putin’s action was an acknowledgement of Russia’s ‘failure’.
Mr Heappey, who noted how 25,000 Russians have already died during the Ukraine conflict, told MPs that Moscow was now condemning hundreds of thousands more troops to a miserable winter.
‘Russian conscripts are going to suffer horribly for the Kremlin’s hubris,’ the minister added.
Ex-prime minister Boris Johnson, speaking in the same Commons debate, branded ‘weak’ Mr Putin as a ‘problem gambler’ taking greater risks because he is ‘terrified of losing.
The former premier highlighted how the price of one-way plane tickets from Moscow to South Africa rocketed yesterday because potential Russian conscripts ‘have no desire to be sacrificed on the altar of his (Mr Putin’s) ego’.
Ukrainian troops fire a mortar at Russian positions in the Kharkiv region as they attempt to push into Donbas and reclaim it from Putin’s troops
A Ukrainian flag flies over a captured Russian tank following a stunning counter-attack by Kyiv’s men that prompted Putin to escalate