Russian proxies in Ukraine claim victory in annexation votes

Russian-installed officials in occupied regions of Ukraine have reported huge majorities in favour of becoming part of Russia after five days of voting in so-called “referendums” that Kyiv and its allies have condemned as illegitimate and a sham.

Hastily arranged votes took place in four areas — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson — that make up about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.

Luhansk authorities said 98.4 percent of people there had voted to join Russia. In Zaporizhia, a Russian-appointed official put the figure at 93.1 percent. In Kherson, the head of the voting committee said the “yes” vote was above 87 percent.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said 99.2 percent of participants in the region had voted to join Russia. In all four areas, officials said all the ballots had been counted.

Within the occupied territories, ballot boxes were taken from house to house in what Ukraine and its allies have called an illegitimate, coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.

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

As voting concluded, the United Nations Security Council held an open session on the referendums in New York City.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to the body in a virtual address shortly after word came that residents in the Zaporizhia region had reportedly voted to join Russia.

“In front of the eyes of the whole world Russia is conducting this so-called sham referendum on the occupied territory of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “People are forced to fill out some papers while being threatened by submachine guns.”

People who had left the four regions for Russia were also able to vote and state news agency RIA said early counts showed numbers in excess of 96 percent in favour of the Ukrainian territories coming under Moscow’s rule.

Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, posted a brief celebratory message on Telegram. “The referendums are over,” he said. “The results are clear. Welcome home, to Russia!”

No peace talks

Ukraine has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of territories would destroy any chance of peace talks, seven months after Russia invaded its neighbour.

Zelenskyy said the votes mean Kyiv will not negotiate with Moscow.

“There is nothing to talk about with [the] current Russian president,” he said.

The votes were hastily arranged within a few days after Ukraine routed Russian forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region, and made gains in the south as a September counteroffensive gathered momentum.

Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid reporting from Kryvyi Rih, located just west of Zaporizhia, said that most people she spoke to said they already “know the results of the referendum, without waiting the full five days of voting. Other people are worried about what happens after the referendum.

“We saw over the past five days, civilians trying to get out of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, and they’ve been saying all along the same thing — some would tell you that this referendum for them was the last [straw].

“They said that, lately, it had become much more strict and much harder to live, but there is that fear of mobilisation [into the Russian forces],” Abdel-Hamid said.

The votes follow a similar referendum conducted in Crimea after Russia seized the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, when Moscow-backed leaders declared a 97 percent vote to join Russia. The annexation has never been recognised by the international community.

Speaking on state TV on Tuesday, Putin said the votes were to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people from alleged persecution. Kyiv has denied any such discrimination.

“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.

‘Internationally recognised borders’

Moscow has acted in recent months to “Russify” areas under its control, including by issuing people with Russian passports and rewriting school curriculums.

Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that if the vote results were favourable, it could consider the incorporation of the four regions on October 4, three days before Putin celebrates his 70th birthday.

At the United Nations, top official Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council meeting that the body “remains fully committed” to Ukraine’s territorial integrity “within its internationally recognised borders”.

While Moscow’s veto means there is no chance the Security Council will reach a consensus on Russia’s annexation, the United States intends to submit a resolution urging member states “not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and obligating Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine,” said US envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Moscow’s closest major ally since the Ukraine invasion, Beijing, has yet to overtly condemn the offensive, but it told the Security Council that the “territorial integrity of all countries should be respected”.

As Russia began releasing the results of the referendums, Medvedev issued a blunt new nuclear warning.

“I want to remind you — the deaf who hear only themselves: Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary,” he said on social media.

Pentagon Spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the US was taking the reiterated threat “seriously” but had seen nothing to cause Washington to change its nuclear posture.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that “Russia must know that the nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

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