| 17 April 2024, Wednesday |

Big majority said to favour joining Russia in first vote results on future of occupied Ukraine regions

The first partial results of ballots cast within Russia on whether four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine should be merged into Russia showed huge majorities in favor, according to official news agency RIA on Tuesday, following so-called referendums that Kyiv and the West dubbed a fraud.

Over the course of five days, hastily organized ballots were held in the four districts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, which account for around 15% of Ukrainian territory. People who had been displaced from such areas were entitled to vote in Russia.

According to RIA, preliminary results from voting stations on Russian territory revealed massive majorities in favor of joining Russia. They varied from 96.97% in Kherson area (based on 14% of votes cast) to 98.19% in Zaporizhzhia (based on 18% of votes cast).

Majorities for the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were slightly under 98%, with 14% and 13% of ballots cast, respectively.

Russian-installed personnel collected vote boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West called an unlawful, coercive exercise to provide a legal excuse for Russia to seize the four areas.

President Vladimir Putin could then portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the European Union to impose further economic sanctions on Russia to punish it for staging the votes, which he said would not change Ukraine’s actions on the battlefield.

Kyiv has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of additional territories would destroy any chance of peace talks, seven months after Russia launched its invasion of its neighbor. It says Ukrainians who helped Russia organize the votes will face treason charges.

The votes mirrored a referendum in Crimea after Russia’s seizure of the region from Ukraine in 2014, when Crimea’s leaders declared a 97% vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Putin said on state TV on Tuesday that the votes were designed to protect people from what he has called the persecution of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers by Ukraine, something that Kyiv has denied.

“Saving people in all the territories where this referendum is being held is at the top of our minds and the focus of attention of our entire society and country,” he said.

In recent months, Moscow has taken steps to “Russify” areas under its control, including granting Russian passports and revising school curricula.

The referendums were rushed this month after Ukraine gained the initiative on the battlefield by routing Russian soldiers in the Kharkiv region’s northeastern outskirts.

Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of Russia’s upper house, indicated that if the voting results were favorable, the upper house may propose incorporating the four regions on Oct. 4, three days before Putin’s 70th birthday.

  • Reuters