Voting began on Friday in Ukrainian regions held by Moscow on referendums to become part of Russia, Russian-backed officials said.
The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums, which have been widely denounced by Ukraine and the West as shams without any legal force, are seen as a step towards Russia’s annexation of the territories.
The votes are taking place in the regions of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, partly controlled by Russia.
The vote, which asks residents if they want their regions to be part of Russia, will certainly go Moscow’s way. This would give Russia a pretext to claim that Ukrainian forces’ attempts to regain control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month war.
The referendums follow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for a partial mobilization, which could add around 300,000 Russian troops to the fight. Voting will continue for five days until Tuesday.
As voting began in occupied regions, Russian social media sites were full of dramatic scenes of tearful families bidding farewell to men leaving military mobilization centers. In towns across the country, men hugged their crying family members before leaving on the project. Meanwhile, Russian anti-war activists have planned further demonstrations against the mobilization.
Election officials will bring ballots to people’s homes and set up makeshift polling stations near residential buildings during the first four days of the referendums, according to Russian-installed officials in occupied areas, who cited security reasons. Tuesday will be the only day voters will be asked to go to the regular polls.
Polling stations have also been opened in Russia, where refugees from occupied regions can vote.
Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum a “historic milestone”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions in an online statement on Friday, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you .
Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s top parliament, said people in occupied regions vote for “life or death” in referendums.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned “bogus referendums” in his evening speech in which he switched from Ukrainian to Russian to tell Russian citizens directly that they are “thrown to their deaths”.
“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and tortures of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose. For men in Russia, it is a choice to die or to live, to become crippled or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or to try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.
The vote is taking place against the backdrop of relentless fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to give ground.
On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhzhia region reported a loud explosion in the center of Melitopol, a town Moscow captured early in the war. Official Vladimir Rogov gave no details about the causes of the explosion and the damage and casualties.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region have also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the city of Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby town of Yasynuvata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country. Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine that borders the Kherson region, said explosions sounded in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.
Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said the Russians launched a barrage of shelling on Nikopol, a town across the Dnieper from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Friday morning.