Voters in four Russian-occupied provinces of Ukraine overwhelmingly agreed to their regions joining Russia, according to early results from referendums regarded as sham plebiscites by Kyiv and its western partners.
Citizens of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine backed incorporation into Russia by between 97 and 98 per cent, according to early results reported by Russian news agency Tass.
The hastily arranged voting 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 had never been in doubt given the Kremlin’s orchestration of the snap vote last week, pave the way for a formal annexation by Moscow of the four provinces as soon as this week.
None of the four territories are fully under Russia’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 use of nuclear weapons to preserve what he sees as his country’s territorial integrity.
He also used the moment to announce a “partial” mobilisation of Russian men, in the first conscription drive since the second world war. The order triggered protests and prompted tens of thousands of military age Russian men to flee the country, many of them to Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Once the referendum results are in, the Russian lower house of parliament will convene to vote on whether the regions should be incorporated into the federation. Analysts expect approval to be swift.
A final sign-off by Putin will then 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 region is also expected to visit Moscow this week, Ria news reported. Such trips could see local authorities appealing to Putin to incorporate their regions 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 news reported.
Earlier on Tuesday, 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 America 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 fear 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 when Russia annexed 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 fleeing the country and many attempting to hide from conscription.