Voters in four Russian-occupied provinces of southern and eastern Ukraine overwhelmingly agreed to their regions joining Russia in referendums regarded as sham plebiscites by Kyiv and its western partners.
The ballots showed support in Luhansk at 98 per cent, Zaporizhzhia at 93 per cent and Kherson at 87 per cent after a full count, Russian state news agency Ria Novosti reported. In Donetsk, approval was 99 per cent.
The hastily arranged vote took place over five days, with election officials, security forces and Russian soldiers going from house to house to ensure residents took part. Ukrainian officials denounced the exercise as voting under the barrel of a gun and reported instances of men being threatened with detention if they did not participate.
The results, which were never in doubt given the Kremlin’s orchestration of the snap vote, pave the way for a formal annexation of the four provinces as soon as this week.
None of the four territories are fully under Moscow’s control and Kyiv has vowed to continue its counteroffensives to take them back. President Vladimir Putin last week said Russia would use “all the means at its disposal” to defend the territories incorporated into Russia, alluding to the possible deployment of nuclear weapons to preserve what he sees as his country’s territorial integrity.
Putin also announced a call-up of 300,000 reservists and men of military age last week, in the first wartime mobilisation since the second world war. The order triggered protests and prompted tens of thousands of military aged Russian men to flee the country, many of them to Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Once the referendum results are in, Russia’s lower house of parliament will convene to vote on whether the regions should be incorporated into the federation. Analysts expected approval to be swift.
A final sign-off by Putin will be required. The Kremlin has signalled that he could address the nation on Friday, though it has not confirmed the event.
The Russian-appointed head of occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia said on Tuesday night that his region had de facto separated from Ukraine and was applying to join Russia. He is expected to visit Moscow this week to appeal to Putin to incorporate the province into Russia.
However, Valentina Matvienko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, which would also need to consider any bill about annexing the Ukrainian regions, seemed to suggest a more drawn-out timeline. She said a session related to the outcomes of the referendums could be held on October 4, Ria reported.
Kyiv’s western allies reiterated their support for Ukrainian sovereignty and said they would never recognise the results of the referendum or a Russian annexation of Ukraine’s territory.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said Washington would act quickly to sanction Russia should it follow through with any annexation of occupied areas.
“We are prepared and we will impose additional severe and swift costs on Russia for proceeding with the annexation,” Blinken said. “We will never recognise the annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia.”
Ukrainian officials have warned that annexation could be a precursor to more extensive conscription of local men to fight alongside the Russian army. Some residents in the occupied territories also feared it could lead to a ban on the hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R Politik consultancy, said Putin would seek to “copy the Crimean model”, referring to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula following a similar snap vote in 2014.
“Military conscription offices . . . will then redouble their efforts to catch the defenders of the expanded Fatherland,” Stanovaya said. Since Putin launched mobilisation last week, a wave of discontent has swept Russia, with tens of thousands attempting to hide from conscription or fleeing the country.