Russia-backed officials in four partially-occupied Ukrainian regions have launched so-called referendums on joining the Russian Federation — which some have called sham votes because they are illegal under international law — amid claims by some local officials that voters were being threatened and intimidated.
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Moscow-controlled administrations in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions are holding the snap votes starting September 23 that run counter to the UN charter in the midst of the largest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was complete, armed groups were going to homes to force people to cast ballots, and employees were threatened if they did not participate in balloting that the Kremlin is expected to use to annex the territories and escalate the war amid increasing signs that its invasion of Ukraine is faltering.
Serhiy Hayday, Ukraine's regional governor in Luhansk, said in a post on Telegram that Russian authorities banned people from leaving for several days to ensure votes, while armed groups had been sent to search homes and coerce people to get out and take part in the referendum.
"We have reports from people that the so-called 'voting commissions' coming to residences to record votes are accompanied by people with weapons…. If the doors to the apartments are not opened, they threaten to break them down," he said, adding that anyone voting "no" was written down in a ledger by the commissioners.
The referendums have been condemned by Kyiv, Western leaders, and the United Nations as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to illegal annexation. There are no independent observers, and much of the prewar population has fled.
In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the vote a "sham" and undemocratic.
The move comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization on September 21 amid apparent heavy personnel losses in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that Moscow started in February.
The announcement triggered an exodus of able-bodied Russian men scrambling to leave the country to avoid being drafted, with traffic at frontier crossings with Finland and Georgia surging and prices for air tickets from Moscow skyrocketing.
Zelenskiy, switching from speaking in Ukrainian to Russian, spoke directly to Russian citizens in his address, telling them they are being “thrown to their deaths.”
“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders, and torture of Ukrainians,” Zelenskiy said, adding, “because you were silent; because you are silent."
He told Russians, that "now it’s 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, grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person,” Zelenskiy said.
The hastily announced referendums were set up by the Kremlin-installed leaders of the four regions. They gave no prior warning that they planned to hold the vote on annexation between September 23- 27.
In Kherson, Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian deputy in the region's council, told RFE/RL on September 23 that the polling stations opened by Russian-controlled officials in the region have remained mostly empty, prompting them to start going house-to-house to collect votes "at gunpoint."
"The occupiers have opened the polling stations. But there is no one at the polling stations, as people from the Kherson region point out. They are empty. The occupiers understand that they are empty, but they envisage door-to-door canvassing in their fake referendum. That is, it is no longer a secret vote. It is a forced collection of the answer 'yes' at gunpoint," Khlan said.
The rushed decision to hold the vote comes as Ukraine’s military is on the offensive in those regions, liberating large swaths of territory and raising the specter of a potential Russian defeat.
Western officials and experts say Putin plans to use the sham referendums to claim Ukraine is invading territory that is part of Russia. This week, he threatened the use of all of Russia's might — a thinly veiled reference to his nuclear weapons — in an attempt to frighten Kyiv and its Western backers from further military action.
The Kremlin showed little desire to mask its true goal over the balloting, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters in Moscow on September 23 that he is "convinced" Russia will proceed "quite quickly" with taking over the regions if the vote is successful.
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian territorial takeovers.
The incorporation of the four areas would then allow Moscow to portray and moves to retake them as an attack on Russia itself — potentially using that to justify even a nuclear response.
Russia's moves have come during the UN General Assembly, where U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on September 22 called on members of the body's Security Council to “send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.”
He called Russia's effort to annex more Ukrainian territory “another dangerous escalation, as well as a repudiation of diplomacy.”
Separately, the Group of Seven industrialized nations condemned annexation referendums being held in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine as a "sham" with "no legal effect or legitimacy."
"We will never recognisz these referenda which appear to be a step toward Russian annexation and we will never recognize a purported annexation if it occurs," the G7 leaders said in a statement on September 23.
The Kremlin has carried out a series of acts in the Ukrainian territories under its control that further highlight the lack of any legitimacy the votes could have.
Moscow has deported about 1.6 million Ukrainians from those regions to Russia, according to Western estimates, while also busing Russian citizens into Ukrainian territory.
WATCH: Long lines of vehicles have formed at a border crossing between Russia's North Ossetia region and Georgia after Moscow announced a partial military mobilization.
It has also captured personal and biometric data of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens at so-called "filtration camps," opening the door, experts say, to ballot manipulation.
Nikolai Bulaev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said he expects “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainians currently in Russia to take part in the referendum.
Russia has little history of holding free and fair elections, with ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation, outright fraud, and media manipulation common practices. It held a similar illegal vote in 2014 after annexing Ukraine's Crimea. Very few countries have accepted the results of the vote.
There is no single database containing information about the number of polling stations that will open in Russia for Ukrainian citizens, nor uniform rules for how the voting will be conducted in the country, the daily Kommersant reported.
Blinken called on every member of the United Nations to “reject the sham referenda and unequivocally declare that all Ukrainian territory is and will remain part of Ukraine.”
He said the United States will continue to support Ukraine regardless of the vote.