Four parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine have begun holding referendums, which Kiev denounced as illegal, paving the way for Moscow to formally annex about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Voting will continue until September 27 in the self-proclaimed “Independent Republic”, which has been under the control of Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, as well as in the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhia.
Russian news agency TASS reported that the voting process in the four regions will be unconventional.
“In view of the short deadline and lack of technical equipment, it was decided not to do electronic voting and to use traditional paper ballots,” it said.
Officials will go door-to-door for the first four days to collect votes and polling stations will open only on the last day.
Russian-backed leaders in the four regions announced plans on Tuesday in a surprise move after Ukraine’s counteroffensive recaptured part of the territory in northeastern Kharkiv seized by Russia after it invaded the country on February 24.
The results are seen as a prejudgment in favor of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made it clear they will not recognize the results.
A similar referendum held in Crimea after the 2014 Russian invasion, polled under close supervision by Russian soldiers, found 97 percent in favor of formal annexation and was not recognized by the international community.
The votes are seen as a significant escalation of the seven-month war in Ukraine – in which thousands have been killed and millions displaced – as the annexation will allow Moscow to claim it is defending its own territory.
“If all of this is declared Russia’s territory, they can declare that it is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian TV.
The referendum has been condemned by the United Nations and United States President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE, which monitored the elections, said the results had no legal force because they did not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards, and fighting continued in areas where voting was taking place.
There will be no independent observers and polling stations in Zaporizhia will be heavily guarded, local officials told the RIA news agency.
Some residents left before voting. Yulia, having fled Melitopol and preferring to give her first name for fear of reprisals, traveled to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhia, but left her parents behind.
She told Al Jazeera that they were part of an older generation who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union, which collapsed 30 years ago and included Ukraine. Russia recognized Ukraine’s post-Soviet borders under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
“I kept my children at home,” she said of life in the occupied city. “There was a lot of pressure on them at school. If they speak Ukrainian, they will be punished. I’m afraid I won’t be able to come back home because people will need special permits to come in and out after the referendum.”
In the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – self-proclaimed republics recognized by Putin as independent before the invasion – residents will have to answer if they support their “accession of the republic to Russia”, according to TASS.
The questions on the ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhia will be phrased differently: “Are you in favor of secession from Ukraine, the creation of an independent state by territory and joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
“It’s all a hoax. It’s all orchestrated by Putin,” Kurt Volker, who was the US special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019 and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think this will have any impact on the situation on the ground and will not change the Ukrainian determination to recover and retake the territory. Nor will it harm the West’s determination to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.”
Ukraine says the referendum is a sign of Russia’s weakness rather than its strength.
Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, about 80 percent of Zaporizhia, and only 60 percent of Donetsk.
A day after the referendum was announced, Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine and declared that he was ready to use nuclear weapons to deter any attacks on Russian territory.
“Any decision taken by the Russian leadership does not change anything for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday.
“We have interesting tasks ahead of us. It is about liberating our country, protecting our people and mobilizing global support [public opinion] To perform those tasks.”