Ukraine: Moscow-controlled regions begin vote on Russia

Kyiv, Ukraine –

A Kremlin-orchestrated referendum began on Friday in occupied parts of Ukraine that sought to integrate them into Russia, with some officials carrying ballots into buildings accompanied by armed police. Kyiv and the West condemned it as a rigged election whose outcome was predetermined by Moscow.

In a grim reminder of the 7-month invasion, UN experts and Ukrainian officials have pointed to new evidence of Russian war crimes. Officials in the Kharkiv region said a mass burial site in the eastern town of Izium contained hundreds of bodies, at least 30 of which showed signs of torture.

Referendums in the partially Russian-occupied regions of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk were widely seen as a prelude to Moscow’s annexation of the regions. The vote supervised by the authorities installed by Russia, scheduled until Tuesday, is almost certain to go in the direction of the Kremlin.

Authorities in the Kherson region have said that residents of a small Moscow-controlled area of ​​neighboring Mykolaiv province will also be able to vote, and that this small area has been “incorporated” into Kherson until all of Mykolaiv is taken over by Russian forces.

Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to carve out large swaths of the country, stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula. A similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move most of the world saw as illegal.

Election officials were bringing ballots to homes and setting up makeshift polling stations near apartments during the referendum, which took place over four days, with officials citing security concerns. Russian state television showed election teams driving through a residential area, with one group accompanied by a masked policeman carrying an assault rifle.

Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, told The Associated Press that Russians and Crimeans were brought to his town to urge people to vote.

“Russians see an overwhelming reluctance and fear to attend the referendum and are forced to bring people … to create an image and an illusion of voting,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians as well as armed soldiers are going door to door, but few people open the doors for them.”

Voting also took place in Russia, where refugees and other residents of those regions could vote.

Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum a “historic milestone”.

Lawmaker Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s State Duma, said in an online statement to the regions: “If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation, we will support you.”

Thousands of people attended pro-Kremlin rallies across Russia in support of the referendums, news agencies reported. “Long live the one, great united Russian people!” a speaker told the large crowd at a rally and concert in central Moscow titled ‘We don’t give up on our own’.

Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai accused officials of writing down the names of people who voted against joining Russia. In online posts, Haidai also alleged that Russian officials threatened to break down the doors of anyone who did not want to vote and posted photos of what appeared to be two deserted polling stations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned the “mock” referendums in a speech. He switched from Ukrainian to Russian to tell Russian citizens that under President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization order they were “thrown to their deaths”.

“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and tortures of Ukrainians,” he said. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it is time for you to choose. For men in Russia, it is a choice to die or to live, to become crippled or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”

The vote is taking place against the backdrop of relentless fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to give ground.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synyehubov and the region’s police chief Volodymyr Timochko said at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izium bore signs of torture. Among them were the bodies of 21 Ukrainian soldiers, some of whom were found with their hands tied behind their backs, they said.

Russian forces occupied Izium for six months before being driven from the area by a Ukrainian counteroffensive earlier that month. The forest burial site was discovered after locals said they were forced to dig graves there.

The exhumations, which began a week ago, are nearing completion as investigators work to identify the victims and the cause of death. A mobile DNA lab was parked at the edge of the burial site.

“Each body has its own story,” Synyehubov said.

Experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council also presented evidence of potential war crimes on Friday, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention centers, and expressed serious concerns about the murders the team was working to document in Kharkiv and in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.

Putin’s partial mobilization of reservists on Wednesday could add about 300,000 troops, his defense minister said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called false media claims plans to call up up to 1.2 million troops.

Across the vast country, men hugged their crying family members before leaving as part of the appeal, raising fears that a wider project could follow. Anti-war activists planned to hold protests on Saturday.

With shifting world opinion pushing Moscow deeper into isolation during the war, Russian officials lashed out at the West. Russian Ambassador to the United States Anataly Antonov told a Moscow conference on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis on Friday that Washington was trying to bring Russia “to its knees” and divide it into “several fiefdoms “while stripping it of its nuclear weapons and its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

In new reports of fighting in the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said 10 civilians were killed and 39 others injured by Russian shelling in nine Ukrainian regions.

Fighting continued in southern Kherson during the vote, he added, as Ukrainian forces launched 280 attacks on Russian command posts, ammunition depots and weapons.

Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk region, where Russian attacks targeted Toretsk, Sloviansk and several small towns. Russian shelling at Nikopol and Marhanets on the west bank of the Dnieper killed two people and injured nine at Marhanets.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said military casualties could be higher than the 9,000 soldiers believed to have been killed in action, as authorities still do not know how many died in the three-month siege of Mariupol , which fell to the Russians in May.

Still, Malyar said Ukraine’s losses were much lower than Russia’s. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously announced the death of 5,937 Russian fighters.

Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant at Izium contributed.

Christi C. Elwood