Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that raises the stakes of Moscow’s invasion seven months after fighting began.
The referendums, which are illegal under international law and dismissed as “a sham” by Western governments and Kyiv, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move could provide Moscow with a pretext to escalate its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv regain thousands of square miles of territory this month.
In an address Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his address, saying he would use “all the means at our disposal,” if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be jeopardized.
The votes, which are expected to take place over five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in Russian-held parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, with questions on the ballot varying slightly depending on the region. Together the four regions make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plans, which are being held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by both the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West. The European Union has said it won’t recognize the results and has indicated it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
The outcome of “sham” secession referendums is “almost certainly already decided,” the UK ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, said on Twitter Friday. “There will be results publicised of something that didn’t happen. I wonder whether anyone will even be called to vote,” she wrote.
Putin backed the referendums in an address to the nation on Wednesday. “The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbas and the civil-military administration of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They have asked Russia to support this step, and we stressed that we will do everything to ensure the safe conditions for people to express their will,” he said.
The separatist leaders in the four occupied regions said the referendums were underway on Friday as Ukrainian officials from occupied areas of the country accused pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics.
“The long-awaited referendum has started, which is designed to restore the fair course of things in our land, to return peace to our homes, to consolidate the status of Donbas as part of our historical Motherland – Russia,” Vladimir Bidyovka, head of the People’s Council of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic said in a propaganda statement published on Telegram.
Ukrainian officials from the occupied areas on Friday accused pro-Russian forces of subverting what should be a democratic process in the referendums on secession.
In both the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities have urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes can be brought to them.
The Luhansk region is almost entirely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But it remains contested – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.
The Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region on Friday said “Russians will calculate and draw any result that is favorable to them” in what he described as a “pseudo-referendum.”
“The opinion of the population has no importance,” Serhii Hayday said on Telegram, adding that an “armed man is involved in each polling station, the appearance of which should force people to meekly cast their vote.”
In Mariupol, which is in the Donetsk region, “the main means of coercion for voting is door-to-door canvassing,” said Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, on Telegram.
“The commission consists of two people with a ballot box and ballots, and two armed men,” he said. “They knock on the doors of apartments/houses, force neighbors to make people come to the commission. Coercion, coercion and more coercion. In fact, they offer to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ directly into the barrel of a gun.”
Andriushchenko is not in the city, but has been a reliable conduit for information from Mariupol. CNN is not able to independently verify his and other characterizations.