So-called “referendums” are under way in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops, with residents told to vote on proposals for the four Ukrainian regions to declare independence and then join Russia.
The polls, hastily organised after being announced this week, are due to run until Tuesday. They have been widely condemned in the west as illegitimate, and appear to be a thin attempt to provide cover for illegal annexation of the regions by Moscow.
Russian news agencies said voting in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces began on Friday morning.
Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, where military hostilities are ongoing, and much of the population has fled since the war started in February. Parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been controlled by Russian proxies since 2014.
President Vladimir Putin has indicated the Kremlin will use the referendums to recognise the territory as Russian, and even threatened this week that Russia would defend the new acquisitions using all available options, including nuclear weapons.
“Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, formerly Russian president and now deputy chair of the security council, said in a post on Telegram on Thursday. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the west.”
In Kyiv, officials said the votes would have no effect on the situation on the ground or the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive.
“There is no referendum. There is a propaganda exercise which is being called a referendum,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “It means nothing. It will be a few staged things where there will be Russian television cameras.”
Many people in the occupied areas were unclear how the referendums would take place, and said there had been little in the way of advertising or campaigning. Video from Donetsk purportedly showed “mobile voting commissions” going house to house asking for people to come to the courtyard and vote, attracting residents with loudspeakers.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum that was also criticised as illegitimate.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, listed a number of reasons why the referendums would have no legal force: they do not meet international standards, run contrary to Ukrainian law, the areas are not secure, there will be no independent observers, and much of the population has fled.
Kyiv this month launched a counteroffensive that has recaptured swathes of territory, seven months after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, starting a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and damaged the global economy.
The referendums had been discussed for months by pro-Moscow authorities but Ukraine’s recent victories prompted a scramble by officials to schedule them.
With Putin also announcing this week a military draft to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, Moscow appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the conflict. Russia has claimed the referendums are an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.
“From the very start of the operation … we said that the peoples of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the whole current situation confirms that they want to be masters of their fate,” the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said this week.
Ukraine says Russia intends to frame the referendum results as a sign of popular support and use them as a pretext for annexation, similar to its takeover of Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognised.
A result in favour of Russia is considered inevitable. The referendum in Crimea in 2014, criticised internationally as rigged, had an official result of 97% in favour of formal annexation.
“If this is all declared Russia territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations,” the Luhansk regional governor, Serhiy Gaidai, told Ukrainian TV.
The referendums have been denounced by world leaders including the US president, Joe Biden, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, as well as Nato, the EU and the OSCE. The “sham referenda” were “illegal and illegitimate”, Nato said on Thursday.
The OSCE, which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal force because they did not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and the areas were not secure. There will be no independent observers, and much of the prewar population has fled.
Russia considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region Moscow partially occupied in 2014, to be independent states.