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Pro-Moscow officials say occupied area has voted to join Russia

Neighbouring countries have seen Russians arriving en masse since the draft was announced last Wednesday.

A group of Russians walks after crossing the border between Georgia and Russia
A group of Russians walks after crossing the border between Georgia and Russia
Image: Zurab Tsertsvadze/PA

Updated Sep 27th 2022, 8:30 PM

PRO-MOSCOW OFFICIALS said that residents in one of the four occupied areas of Ukraine voted to join Russia in a Kremlin-orchestrated vote that has been dismissed by the US and Western allies as illegitimate.

According to Russia-installed election officials in Zaporizhzhia region, 93.11% of the ballots case in the vote were in support of the annexation.

Results from three other Ukrainian regions were expected to follow shortly.

The preordained outcome sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in Russia’s seven-month war in Ukraine because it is expected to serve as a pretext for Moscow to annex the four areas. That could happen as soon as Friday.

The referendums in the Luhansk and Kherson regions and parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia began on September 23, often with armed officials going door-to-door collecting votes.

The ballots asked residents whether they wanted the areas to be incorporated into Russia.

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions in southern and eastern Ukraine said polls closed on Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is expected to address Russia’s parliament about the referendums on Friday, and Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the parliament’s upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on October 4.

Meanwhile, Russia ramped up warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired lands, and mobilising more than a quarter of a million more troops to deploy to a front line of more than 620 miles.

After the balloting, “the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, and the UN Security Council was scheduled to meet later in New York to discuss a resolution that says the voting results will never be accepted and that the four regions remain part of Ukraine.

Russia is certain to veto the resolution.

Russians fleeing

Earlier, Georgia and Kazakhstan said that tens of thousands of Russians had flooded into their countries from neighbouring Russia since the announcement of partial mobilisation to fight in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week announced the call-up of thousands of reservists, sparking protests across the country and a rush among Russian men for the borders.

Fyodor said he had fled to Russia’s border with Kazakhstan spooked by reports that even the infirm and elderly were being called up to fight.

Like other people AFP spoke to, he asked not to provide his full name.

“There is full chaos (in Russia),” the 24-year-old said. “We don’t understand what will happen.”

He decided to leave for Kazakhstan on Saturday morning “as a precautionary measure” to “take a head start, just in case”.

TodaKazakhstan said around 98,000 Russians had entered the country since mobilisation was announced.

It took Fyodor about 48 hours, including a five-kilometre (three-mile) walk to the border and a six-hour queue, before he reached the northern Kazakh city of Oral.

“It was raining, it was cold, but six hours of wait… well, that was still reasonable given the circumstances,” he said.

Vladislav, a 25-year-old bartender, found shelter in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Monday evening.

In Russia, he said, “I could go to work or to do the groceries and never come back… I don’t want to die.”

“A week ago, I could not imagine I’d be in Kazakhstan,” he told AFP, adding that he “wanted to thank the Kazakh people for welcoming him so nicely.”

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said today his country would ensure the safety of Russians fleeing “a hopeless situation”.

“This is a political and humanitarian issue,” Tokayev added.

“The territorial integrity of states must be unshakeable,” Tokayev said.

Kazakhstan has condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and called for respect of territorial integrity, as Russia held annexation referendums in four Ukrainian regions.

“In our immediate vicinity a major war is underway. We must remember this, thinking above all about our security,” he added.

Russians also flocked to the Black Sea nation of Georgia.

Today, Georgia said the number of Russians arriving each day has nearly doubled since the draft was announced.

“Four to five days ago 5,000-6,000 (Russians) were arriving in Georgia daily. The number has grown to some 10,000 per day,” Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri told journalists.

Georgia and its neighbour Armenia, which do not require visas for Russians, have been major destinations for Russians fleeing since the war began on February 24.

Over the first four months of the war, nearly 50,000 Russians fled to Georgia and another 40,000 to Armenia.

Today, the local interior ministry in a Russian region that borders Georgia said there was a tailback of around 5,500 cars waiting to cross the Georgian border, calling the situation “extremely tense”.

The ministry added that a mobile draft office will be set up at the border in the “near future”.

© AFP 2022

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