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Russia's annexation voting gets underway in occupied Ukraine as West denounces referendum

The referendums are reminiscent of one in 2014 that saw Ukraine’s Crimea annexed by Russia.

People during mobile voting in residential buildings in the Kievsky district
People during mobile voting in residential buildings in the Kievsky district
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Sep 23rd 2022, 9:35 PM

WESTERN NATIONS HAVE dismissed the referendums in Kremlin-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian and UN officials revealed what they said was more evidence of Russian “war crimes”.

The voting, on whether Russia should annex these parts of Ukraine into its own territory, opened today, dramatically raising the stakes of Moscow’s seven-month invasion.

Even as polling got under way however, Ukrainian forces said they were clawing back territory from the Moscow-backed separatists in the very lands Russia wants to assimilate.

The votes in the four regions are the latest shock development in a ferocious war that UN investigators said had seen violence – like executions and torture – that amounted to war crimes.

Kyiv’s western allies have dismissed as a sham the referendums in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Even China, Russia’s closest ally since the war began, has acknowledged that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the comments to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba at the UN General Assembly today.

‘Sham’ 

Authorities in the Russian-controlled regions are going door-to-door for four days to collect votes. Polling stations then open on Tuesday for residents to cast ballots on the final day of voting.

It was also possible to vote at the building in Moscow that represents the Donetsk breakaway region.

Leonid, a 59-year-old military official, told AFP he was “feeling happy”.

“Ultimately, things are moving towards the restoration of the Soviet Union. The referendum is one step towards this,” he said.

“Donbas is Russia” said a post on Telegram by Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian separatist leader in Donetsk – part of the industrial Donbas region.

But earlier this month, a Ukrainian counter-offensive seized back most of the north-eastern Kharkiv region, bringing hundreds of settlements back under Kyiv’s control after months of Russian occupation.

Today, Kyiv said its forces had made more progress, recapturing a village in the Donetsk region and retaking positions south of the war-scarred town of Bakhmut.

The four regions’ integration into Russia would represent a major escalation of the conflict as Moscow would consider any military move there as an attack on its own territory.

The referendums are reminiscent of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and the referendum there, denounced by Western nations, who imposed sanctions on Moscow as a result.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the referendums as a “farce”.

Evidence of ‘war crimes’

Today, the G7 Group of Seven industrialised nations also condemned the referendums as a “sham” with “no legal effect or legitimacy”.

But in Donetsk and Lugansk – which Putin recognised as independent just before invading Ukraine in February – residents are answering if they support their “republic’s entry into Russia”, TASS reported.

Ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia ask the question: “Are you in favour of secession from Ukraine, formation of an independent state by the region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”

Russian news agencies reported that voting had begun at 5am today, while TASS reported paper ballots would be used to save time.

UN investigators meanwhile said today that war crimes had been committed in the Ukraine conflict, listing Russian bombings of civilian areas, as well as executions, torture and horrific sexual violence.

Erik Mose, who has led a team of investigators set up in March, said they were “struck by the large number of executions”.

In eastern Kharkiv region, Ukrainian officials said today that they had completed their exhumation of 447 bodies from a mass burial site near the city of Izyum.

“Most of them have signs of violent death, and 30 have signs of torture,” said Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov in a post on social media.

“There are bodies with rope around their necks, with their hands tied, with broken limbs and gunshot wounds,” he added. Izyum was part of the territory recently recaptured from Russian forces.

The Kremlin has denied its forces carried out any large-scale killings in east Ukraine, accusing Kyiv of fabricating evidence.

© – AFP 2022

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