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 “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 reportedly 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 territory 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 territory 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 the Russian annexation of its regions would destroy any chance of peace talks with Moscow, which began its invasion seven months ago.
“There is nothing to talk about with [the] current Russian president,” Zelenskyy 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.
Kyiv’s allies reiterated their condemnation of the referendums, with Canada saying it would impose new sanctions.
“Canada does not – and will not ever – recognize the results of Russia’s illegitimate referendums or its attempted, illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement on Wednesday that was shared on social media.
“Let me be clear: Ukraine’s borders will not change. Ukraine’s territory will remain Ukraine’s.”
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Kryvyi Rih just west of Zaporizhia, said 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.
‘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, Russia could consider annexing the four regions on October 4, three days before Putin celebrates his 70th birthday.
At the UN, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs 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.
China, Moscow’s closest major ally since the Ukraine invasion, 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: “Russia must know that the nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”