KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Voting began Friday in the Moscow-held regions of Ukraine for referendums on becoming part of Russia, Russian-backed officials there said.
The Kremlin-orchestrated referendumswhich has been widely condemned by Ukraine and the West as shams with no legal force, is seen as a step towards annexing the territories by Russia.
The votes will take place in Luhansk, Kherson and partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
The vote, which asks residents whether they want their regions to be part of Russia, will surely go Moscow’s way. It would give Russia a pretext to claim that attempts by Ukrainian forces to regain control are attacks on Russia itself that are dramatically escalating the seven-month war.
Referendums follow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for a partial mobilization, which could add about 300,000 Russian troops to the fray. Voting continues for five days until Tuesday.
As voting was underway in the occupied regions, Russian social media pages were full of dramatic scenes of weeping families saying goodbye to men leaving military mobilization centers. In cities across the country, men hugged their weeping family members before leaving as part of the draft. Russian anti-war activists, meanwhile, planned more protests against the mobilization.
Election officials will bring ballots to people’s homes and set up temporary polling stations near residential buildings during the first four days of the referendums, according to Russian-installed officials in the occupied regions, who cited security reasons. Tuesday will be the only day on which voters will be invited to come to general polls.
Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees from the occupied regions can cast their votes.
Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum “a historic milestone.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman 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 upper house of parliament, said residents of the occupied regions voted for “life or death” in the referendums.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “rigged polls” in his nightly speech, switching from speaking in Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens that they are being “thrown to death.”
“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 is time for you to choose. For men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become a cripple or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandsons forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”
The vote comes against a backdrop of incessant fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to cede ground.
On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhzhia region reported a loud explosion in the center of Melitopol, a city that Moscow captured early in the war. The official Vladimir Rogov gave no details about what caused the explosion and whether there were any injuries or 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 town of Yasynuvata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country. Vitaliy Kim, governor of Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, which borders 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 the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, on Friday morning.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine