KYIV – Russia-backed officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia are holding self-styled referendums on joining Russia.
The four regions involved are either partially or completely under Russian occupation.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was over, armed groups were going into homes, and employees were threatened with the sack if they did not participate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a nightly address that the votes would be “unequivocally condemned” by the world, along with the mobilisation Russia began this week, including in Crimea and other areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia.
“These are not just crimes against international law and Ukrainian law, these are crimes against specific people, against a nation,” Zelenskiy said.
The votes on becoming part of Russia were hastily organised after Ukraine recaptured large swathes of the northeast in a counter-offensive earlier this month.
Zelenskiy also addressed people in parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia, and said they should resist efforts to mobilise them to fight.
“Hide from Russian mobilisation in any way you can,” he said. “Avoid draft orders. Try to move to the territory of free Ukraine,’ he said, urging those who did end up in the Russian armed forces to “sabotage”, “interfere”, and pass on intelligence to Ukraine.
By incorporating the four areas, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself – potentially using that to justify even a nuclear response.
Putin and other Russian officials have mentioned nuclear weapons as an option in extreme: a terrifying prospect in a war that has already killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions and pummelled the global economy.
The G7 group of wealthiest nations condemned what they say are sham votes, that are taking place over five days, describing them as an illegitimate precursor to illegal annexation.
There are no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.
Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau, speaking in Ottawa, decried the “fake referendums” and said Russia “is now in total violation of the UN Charter, of its principles, of its values, of everything that the UN stands for”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance will step up support for Ukraine in response to the referendums.
“We will never recognise these referenda which appear to be a step toward Russian annexation and we will never recognise purported annexation if it occurs,” added the G7.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing a military draft this week to enlist 300 000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appeared to be trying to regain the upper hand in the grinding conflict since its February 24 invasion.
Queues have sprung up along Russia’s borders as men attempt to leave the country to avoid a military call-up.
“We don’t support what is happening now, and we don’t want to be a part of it,” Slava, 29, said. She was fleeing with her partner Evgeniy at a crossing into Finland, where traffic has surged.
In one poor rural area, a woman chafed at a call-up – for her dead brother.