Russia launched referendums in four occupied areas of Ukraine on Friday expected to be used by Moscow to justify annexation, but Kyiv said the voting was mandatory with residents being threatened with punishment if they did not take part.
The votes on whether the regions should become part of Russia began after Ukraine earlier this month recaptured large swathes of territory in a counteroffensive. Russia’s seven-month war has killed tens of thousands, uprooted millions and pummelled the global economy.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing this week a military draft to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the grinding conflict.
And by incorporating the four areas into Russia, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, a warning to Kyiv and Western supporters.
Putin on Wednesday said Russia would “use all the means at our disposal” to protect itself, an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said.
The referendums had been discussed for months by Moscow-installed authorities in the four regions but Ukraine’s recent victories prompted a scramble to schedule them.
Voting in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, representing about 15% of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to Tuesday.
“Voting has started in the referendum on Zaporizhzhia region becoming a part of Russia as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation! We are coming home! Godspeed, friends!” said Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian-backed administration of that southern region of Ukraine.