Moscow-held regions of Ukraine in ‘sham’ vote to join Russia

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Voting began Friday in Moscow-occupied regions of Ukraine to become part of Russia, Russian-backed officials said.

A Kremlin-orchestrated referendumWidely condemned by Ukraine and the West as shams without any legal force, it is seen by Russia as a step towards annexation of territory.

Voting is taking place in Luhansk, Kherson and the partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhia and Donetsk regions.

A vote asking residents whether they want their territories to be part of Russia is sure to go Moscow’s way. That would give Russia a pretext to claim that attempts by Ukrainian forces to retake control are attacks on Russia itself, dramatically escalating the seven-month war..

Russian President Vladimir Putin followed through on the partial reunification order, which could add about 300,000 Russian troops to the battle. Voting will continue for five days till Tuesday.

As voting began in the occupied territories, Russian social media sites were filled with dramatic scenes of tearful families waving goodbye to men leaving military mobilization centers. In towns across the country, men hugged their weeping family members before leaving as part of the draft. Russian anti-war activists, meanwhile, planned more protests against the blockade.

Election officials will bring ballots to people’s homes and set up temporary polling stations near residential buildings during the first four days of the referendum, according to Russian-based officials in the occupied territory, citing security concerns. Tuesday will be the only day when voters will be urged to turn out for regular polling.

Voting also began in Russia, where refugees from the occupied territories could cast their votes.

Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called Friday’s referendum a “historic milestone.”

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied territories in an online statement on Friday, saying: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation – we will support you.”

Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said residents of the occupied territories were voting for “life or death” in the referendum.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only briefly mentioned the “sham referendum” in his nightly speech in which he switched from Ukrainian to Russian to directly tell Russian citizens that they were being “thrown to their deaths”.

“You are already complicit in all these crimes, in the killing and torture of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose. For men in Russia, the choice is to die or live, to be disabled or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, children, grandchildren forever. Or even trying to save them from death, from war, from one person.

The vote comes amid ongoing fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede ground.

On Friday morning, pro-Russian officials in the Zaporizhia region reported a large explosion in the center of Melitopol, a city captured by Moscow at the start of the war. Official Vladimir Rogov did not give any information about what caused the explosion and whether there were any damage or casualties.

Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the city of Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby town of Yasinuvata.

Ukrainian officials reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country. Vitaly Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, which borders Kherson region, said the explosions occurred in the city of Mykolaiv early on Friday.

The governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentin Reznichenko, said the Russians opened fire on the town of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, on Friday morning.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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