Four areas of Russian-occupied Ukraine have started to hold referendums, which have been condemned as illegitimate by Kyiv and are seen as paving the way for Moscow to formally annex some 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Voting in Luhansk and Donetsk, self-proclaimed “independent republics” controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, as well as in southern Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces will continue until September 27.
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The voting process in the four regions would be untraditional, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Given the short deadlines and the lack of technical equipment, it was decided not to hold electronic voting and use the traditional paper ballots,” it said.
Authorities will go door-to-door for the first four days to collect votes, and polling stations will open only on the final day for residents to cast their ballots.
The Russian-installed leaders of the four areas abruptly announced the plans on Tuesday after a lightning Ukraine counteroffensive recaptured swathes of territory in northeastern Kharkiv that Russia had occupied after invading the country on February 24.
The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favour of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made clear they will not recognise the outcome.
A similar referendum, held in Crimea after the Russian invasion of 2014, found 97 percent in favour of formal annexation in a vote that took place under the close watch of Russian soldiers and was not recognised by the international community.
The votes are seen as a significant escalation of the seven-month-old war in Ukraine — in which thousands have been killed and millions displaced — because incorporation would allow Moscow to claim that it was defending its own territory.
“If this is all declared Russia territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian TV.
The referendums have been condemned by the United Nations and world leaders, including United States President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as international bodies such as NATO, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
OSCE, which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal force because they do not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and fighting is continuing in the areas where the votes are taking place.
‘All a sham’
There will be no independent observers, and polling stations in Zaporizhzhia will be under heavy guard, local officials told the RIA news agency.
Some residents continued to leave ahead of the vote. Yulia, who fled Melitopol and preferred to share only her first name for fear of reprisals, travelled to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, but left her parents behind.
She would told Al Jazeera they were part of an older generation who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union, which collapsed more than 30 years ago and included Ukraine. Russia recognised Ukraine’s post-Soviet borders under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
“I kept my children at home,” she said, of life in the occupied city. “At school there was too much pressure on them. They would get punished if they spoke Ukrainian. I’m afraid I won’t be able to return home because after the referendum people will need special permits to get in and out.”
In the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – the self-proclaimed republics Putin recognised as independent just before the invasion – residents will have to answer if they support their “republic’s entry into Russia”, according to TASS.
The question on the ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia will be phrased differently: “Are you in favour of secession from Ukraine, formation of an independent state by the region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
“This is all a sham. This is all a charade being orchestrated by Putin,” Kurt Volker, who was US special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019 and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think this has any impact on the situation on the ground and won’t change Ukrainian determination to recover and recapture territories. Nor will it harm the determination in the West to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression.”
Ukraine has said the referendums were a sign of Russia’s weakness rather than strength.
Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, about 80 percent of Zaporizhzhia and just 60 percent of Donetsk.
A day after the referendums were announced, Putin ordered a mobilisation of reservists to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, and declared he was ready to use nuclear weapons to fend off any attacks on Russian territory.
“Any decision that the Russian leadership may take changes nothing for Ukraine,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.
“Of interest to us are strictly the tasks before us. This is the liberation of our country, defending our people and mobilising world support [public opinion] to carry out those tasks.”