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KHARKIV AND ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine and MOSCOW – Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine appeared to vote overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Russian Federation, according to initial feedback reported by Russian state media. Ukraine and its international partners have dismissed the highly controversial referendums as a sham and a violation of international law.
The Russian-led referendum votes took place over five days, September 23-27, despite international outrage.
The referendums are widely seen as the Kremlin’s first step towards formal Russian annexation of the territories, although the exact timing remains unclear.
With around 15% of the votes counted, preliminary results reported by Russian state media on Tuesday showed more than 97% of votes in favor of the measure across all regions.
On September 20, the day before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new military plan and another major push in his war against Ukraine, officials from the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk backed by Moscow announced that they would hold the referendums on joining Russia. Authorities in the occupied parts of the southern Ukrainian oblasts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson soon followed suit, saying they would also hold votes on whether to secede from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation.
These four regions are active war zones that many residents have fled, with daily reports of fighting and explosions.
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Local Ukrainian officials reported numerous incidents of voter coercion during the five days of voting, with photos and videos appearing on social media indicating a process that was neither free nor fair. According to reports and social media posts from the eastern and southern regions, the process of collecting “votes” was carried out by officials with armed security forces going door to door.
A video widely shared on Telegram and Twitter messaging app shows security footage purportedly from an apartment building in an occupied area, with two armed soldiers escorting officials carrying ballot boxes down a stairwell. Another video showed residents of a polling station filling out ballots with Russian officials watching from across the table.
Most voting was done by poll workers – under armed guard – bringing paper ballots door to door, as the process was so rushed there was no time to set up an infrastructure for more complex voting, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
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Local officials did not open polling stations to the public until the last day of polling. Russia and its proxies also organized the voting of Ukrainians who had fled to Russia from areas amid the conflict. Russia’s own Central Election Commission was tasked with monitoring the vote.
The process – and the outcome – was reminiscent of the Kremlin’s hastily organized referendum in Crimea eight years ago, after Russian troops seized that part of Ukraine in 2014. The official outcome of that referendum, which was also denounced as a farce by international observers, was that more than 95% of voters wanted to join the Russian Federation.
After the vote, Moscow quickly annexed Crimea. In response, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations all rejected the Crimean referendum because illegal and sanctioned Russia.
Western leaders say elections in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine are also illegal under international law and they will not accept the result.
“Russian referendums are a sham,” President Biden said in a statement September 23. “The United States stands with our partners around the world – and all nations that uphold the fundamental principles of the Charter of the United Nations – in rejecting any fabricated outcome that Russia announces.”
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We have been very clear that we are ready and we will impose severe and rapid additional costs on Russia to proceed with the annexation…the Ukrainians will continue to do what they need to do to reclaim the lands taken from them, and we will continue to support them in this effort.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed that Ukraine will never agree to what he called “pseudo-referendums”. Zelenskyy says residents of the occupied territories were sometimes forced to vote at gunpoint. He has previously warned that if Moscow went ahead with the referendums, “it would exclude any possibility of negotiations with Ukraine”.
Several Russian news outlets have reported that Putin will address his Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, on Friday – a move widely interpreted as an opportunity for the Russian leader to celebrate the “reunification” of the regions with Russia.
Still, a senior Russian lawmaker insisted on Tuesday that parliament would take no extraordinary steps to vote on annexation – a key formal step towards ratification – before regular parliamentary sessions which begin next week.
Lonsdorf reported from Zaporizhzhia, Beaubien from Kharkiv and Maynes from Moscow.