Vote in Ukraine’s Russia-held areas stokes tension with West

Vote in Ukraine's Russia-held areas stokes tension with West thumbnail

KYIV, Ukraine — Pro-Moscow officials said Tuesday that residents in three of the four occupied areas of Ukraine voted to join Russia in a Kremlin-orchestrated vote that has been dismissed by the U.S. and its Western allies as illegitimate.

According to Russia-installed election officials, 93% of the ballots case in the Zaporizhzhia region were in support of annexation, as were 87% of ballots in the southern Kherson region and 98% in Luhansk.

Results for the Donetsk area were expected to follow on Tuesday.

The preordained outcome sets the stage to a dangerous new phase of Russia’s seven-month-old war in Ukraine. It is expected that it will serve as a pretext to Moscow to annexe the four regions. This could happen as early as Friday.

The referendums in the Luhansk and Kherson regions and parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia began Sept. 23, often with armed officials going door-to-door collecting votes. Voting was conducted to find out if residents wanted the regions to be incorporated into Russia.

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions in southern and eastern Ukraine said polls closed Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will address Russia’s parliament on Friday about the referendums. Valentina Matviyenko (chairperson of the parliament’s upper chamber) said that lawmakers could consider annexation legislation in October. 4.

Meanwhile, Russia ramped up warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired lands, and continued mobilizing more than a quarter-million more troops to deploy to a front line of more than 1,000 kms (more than 620 miles). Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, said Tuesday that the situation would radically change after the balloting.

Several Western leaders have called this referendum a sham. The U.N. Security Council met later Tuesday in New York to discuss a resolution saying that the voting results will not be accepted and that the four areas remain part of Ukraine. Russia will veto the resolution.

The balloting and the call-up by Russian military reservists, which Putin ordered last Wednesday, are intended to strengthen Moscow’s military and political positions.

The referendums follow a Kremlin strategy for territorial expansion. Under the close supervision of Russian troops, 2014, Russian authorities conducted a similar referendum about Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Russia annexed Crimea based on the results of the vote. Putin cited the defense of Russians living in Ukraine’s eastern regions, and their supposed desires to join with Russia, as a pretext for his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Putin has been promoting Moscow’s nuclear option ever since the Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive to reclaim territory. He has also been increasingly in control of his forces. A top Putin aide ramped up the nuclear rhetoric on Tuesday.

“Imagine Russia being forced to use the most powerful weapon possible against the Ukrainian regime for its aggression. This is dangerous for our very existence,” Dmitry Medvedev (Deputy Head of the Russian Security Council), wrote on his messaging app channel. “I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict.”

The United States has dismissed the Kremlin’s nuclear talk as a scare tactic.

Residents were asked in referendums whether they wanted the areas to be integrated into Russia. The Kremlin presented them as free and fair and reflected the people’s desire to self-determination. Tens of thousands of people had fled the region because of the war. Those who remained shared images showing armed Russian troops going door to door to force Ukrainians to vote.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians seized it after a months-long siege, said only about 20% of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum. Mariupol’s pre-war population was 541,000. A man with an assault rifle comes to your house and asks you to vote. Boychenko was asked this question during a news conference. He explained how people were forced to vote.

Western allies stood firm with Ukraine and dismissed the referendum votes as a sham.

British Foreign Minister James Cleverly stated that the ballots were a “desperate move” by Putin. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said while visiting Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined “to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

She described the ballots as “mock referendums.” Ukrainian officials said Paris and Kyiv had moved closer to an agreement that would supply Ukrainian forces with French Caesar artillery systems.

Elsewhere, trouble emerged for Putin in the mass call-up he ordered of Russians to active military duty.

The order has triggered a mass exodus of Russian men, fueled protests across many regions, and sparked acts violence. A gunman opened fire on Monday at an enlistment center in a Siberian town and seriously wounded the chief military recruit officer. Other enlistment offices had also been subject to arson attacks.

One destination of fleeing Russian men is Kazakhstan, which reported Tuesday that about 98,000 Russians have crossed into Kazakhstan over the past week.

The European Union’s border and coast guard agency says 66,000 Russian citizens entered the 27-nation bloc from Sept. 19 to 25, a 30% increase over the preceding week. Russian officials attempted to intercept some fleeing reservists along one of the main exodus routes by issuing conscription notices at the Georgian border. According to the state-run TASS agency a task force for enlistment was handing out notices at Verkhnii Lars checkpoint where 5 cars were lining up. Independent Russian news sources reported unverified claims that draft-age men would be prohibited from leaving the country after the referendum. As Moscow sought to increase its troops in Ukraine, possibly sending them to support its proxies who have been fighting the separatists for the past eighteen years, Russian shelling continued and claimed lives. Russian barrages killed at least 11 civilians and wounded 18 in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Tuesday.

The human toll was also reflected in a U.N. human rights monitoring mission’s first comprehensive look at violations and abuses Russia and Ukraine committed between Feb. 1 and July 31, the first five months of Russia’s invasion.

Matilda Bogner was the chief of the mission. She stated that Ukrainian prisoners of war had been subject to “systematic” mistreatment after their capture and also after their transfer to Russian-controlled areas in Ukraine and Russia. The Ukraine war continues to be a major topic of international attention. It causes widespread shortages and increases the prices for food and energy, causing a rise in global inequality. Talk of nuclear war only exacerbated concerns.

Misery, hardship and other consequences of Russia’s occupation in Ukraine have been a legacy of the areas that Kyiv’s forces retaken. Since March, some people have lived without electricity, running water, or gas.

The war caused an energy crisis in much of Western Europe. German officials saw the disruption of Russian supplies to be a Kremlin power play designed to press Europe over its support of Ukraine. The danger to energy supplies grew after seismologists reported Tuesday that blasts rattled the Baltic Sea, before unusual leaks were discovered at two underground natural gas pipelines connecting Russia and Germany. Experts and leaders in Europe suggested that there was possible sabotage in an energy dispute with Russia. This was triggered by the conflict in Ukraine. The Nord Stream 1 & 2 pipelines were affected by the three leaks. These pipelines are full of natural gas, but do not deliver the fuel to Europe. The damage means that the pipelines will not be able transport any gas to Europe this winter, even if there is political will to do so.


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