Voting in the Donetsk and Lugansk (east) regions, as well as in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia (south), started at 5 am (2 am GMT), Russian news agencies reported, and is expected to last five days.
The referendums add to the tension in a week marked by the mobilization of 300,000 reservists announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has also threatened to use the nuclear arsenal to protect his country’s territory.
A hypothetical integration of the four regions with Russia, which analysts consider a certain thing, would imply that Moscow, following its doctrine, could use its atomic weapons to defend them against the counteroffensive initiated by Ukraine in the east and south of the country.
“We cannot let President Putin get away with it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a UN Security Council meeting, accusing the Russian of “throwing fuel on the fire”.
“The international order that we are trying to save here is being destroyed before our eyes,” he added.
A Russian military vehicle in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, passes a sign asking for votes for the annexation of the region. — Photo: AP
The referendums recall the consultation organized in 2014 on the Crimean peninsula, annexed to Russia after a vote considered fraudulent by the Western powers.
After the announcement of the referendums on Tuesday (20), Western leaders denounced the illegitimacy of the votes.
At the UN, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the accusations and blamed the situation on Kiev’s “Totalitarian Nazi state”.
“There is an attempt to impute to us a completely different narrative about a Russian aggression as the origin of this tragedy,” he said.
In the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, recognized as independent nations by Moscow shortly before the February 24 invasion, residents must respond whether they support “entry into Russia”, according to Russian news agency TASS.
In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in the south, the ballots include the question: “Are you in favor of the secession of Ukraine, the formation of an independent state and its joining the Russian Federation as a member of the Russian Federation?”
The process will be peculiar. The authorities must collect the votes door to door in the first four days of the referendum and only on the last day, Tuesday (27), the polling places will open their doors.
Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the self-proclaimed republic of Lugansk, said he has been waiting for the vote since 2014, when pro-Russian insurgents began in this region and neighboring Donetsk.
“It’s our common dream and future,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the referendums a “farce” and thanked Western allies who condemned “another Russian lie”.
Escape after mobilization announcement
The hypothetical annexation would represent a serious escalation in the conflict, particularly after Putin said he would protect Russian territory with “all means”.
The former president and current number two of the country’s Security Council, Dmitri Medvedev, stressed that this means the use of “strategic nuclear weapons”.
At the same time, Russia began on Thursday the mobilization of reservists announced by Putin after the considerable setbacks suffered in recent weeks in the face of Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
The Russian army said at least 10,000 people volunteered within 24 hours of the announcement, which also sparked demonstrations in several cities that ended with more than 1,300 arrests.
The press reported that many people tried to flee the country to avoid the summons.
Flights to neighboring nations, in particular the former Soviet republics that allow visa-free entry for Russians, are practically full and ticket prices are on the rise.
“I don’t want to die in this senseless war. It’s a fratricidal war,” declared Dmitri, 45, who was carrying only a small backpack at the airport in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
Most of the passengers on the last flight between Moscow and Yerevan were men of military service age, many of whom were reluctant to be interviewed.
Exhausted, Serguei, 44, admits he left the country to escape possible recruitment alongside his 17-year-old son Nikolai.
“The situation in Russia led me to decide to leave. Yes, we left Russia because of the mobilization,” he said.
The Russian president and the Saudi crown prince expressed “satisfaction” with a prisoner exchange with Ukraine that included foreign fighters, brokered by Saudi Arabia.
Ukrainian authorities announced on Wednesday that they had received 215 fighters from the country and foreigners during an exchange with Russia that recovered 55 Russian prisoners, including former Ukrainian lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, close to Putin and accused of high treason in Kiev.
Saudi Arabia also announced the transfer to its territory of five Britons, two Americans, a Moroccan, a Swede and a Croatian as part of the exchange.
The five released Britons returned to the UK on Thursday.