Annexation referendums in four occupied areas of Ukraine will draw to a close later on Tuesday, paving the way for Moscow to officially seize more territory and expand its military operation, possibly within days.
The votes on whether to join Russia are being held in Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, four regions that make up about 15 percent of Ukraine’s landmass.
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While Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss the “sham” polls, Russian media are reporting high turnouts.
In rebel-held Luhansk, the voting rate was above 90 percent by early Tuesday, according to the Kremlin-backed RIA Novosti outlet.
Moscow insists voting is voluntary and the polls are fair, but the results will inevitably favour annexation.
When Russia held a referendum in Crimea after seizing the peninsula in 2014, it declared that 97 percent of people had voted to join Russia.
But even traditional Russian allies such as Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognise the latest annexation votes.
The five-day exercise has been beset by irregularities, including reports of Russian troops taking ballot boxes door-to-door and coercing Ukrainians into voting.
“In no way, certainly according to the Ukrainians, are these votes legitimate or do they represent any real kind of guide on what the people living in those occupied territories want,” said Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv.
Kyiv has warned that Ukrainians who assist the votes and annexations will face treason charges and at least five years in jail.
“We have lists of names of people who have been involved in some way,” presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak told Swiss newspaper Blick.
“We are talking about hundreds of collaborators. They will be prosecuted for treason. They face prison sentences of at least five years,” he said.
However, Podolyak said, Ukrainians who were forced to vote would not be punished.
Nuclear weapons threat
Faced with recent humiliating battlefield setbacks for his forces in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin hopes the annexation ballot will boost Russia’s performance in the war.
As the votes were under way, the Kremlin cautioned Kyiv faces a devastating escalation of the conflict, all the way up to the use of its nuclear arsenal.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, spelled out the threat in the bluntest terms yet on Tuesday.
“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” Medvedev wrote on his Telegram app channel. “I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict in that case.”
Reports suggest Russia’s parliament could possibly approve annexation before the end of this week, allowing Putin to declare their incorporation into Russia.
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Moscow, said Russian media portrayed the referendum votes as “smooth”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday that the Donetsk region in the east remained his country’s top strategic priority, with fighting engulfing several towns as Russian troops try to advance to the south and west.
Ukraine’s recent success in recapturing territory has forced Putin to rethink Russia’s military strategy, leading to the conscription of a reported 300,000 reserve troops.