Occupied Ukraine Holds Kremlin Vote on Joining Russia

Kyiv, Ukraine –

A Kremlin-orchestrated referendum began on Friday in occupied regions of Ukraine seeking to make them part of Russia, with some officials taking ballots to apartment blocks 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. Kharkiv region officials said a mass burial site in the eastern city of Izium contained hundreds of bodies, including at least 30 showing signs of torture.

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

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

Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to carve up a large part of the country, which stretches from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world considered illegal.

Election officials took ballots to homes and set up makeshift polling stations near apartments in the four-day referendum, with officials citing security reasons. Russian state television showed election teams going into a residential neighborhood, with one such group accompanied by a masked police officer carrying an assault rifle.

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

“The 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 the vote,” he said. “Groups of collaborators and Russians together with armed soldiers are conducting a door-to-door survey, but few people open the doors for them.”

Voting also took place in Russia, where refugees and other residents of those regions were able to 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 the Russian 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 unique, great and united Russian people!” one speaker told the large crowd at a rally and concert in central Moscow entitled “We do not abandon our own.”

Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai accused officials of taking 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.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only briefly mentioned “fake” referendums in a speech. He switched from speaking Ukrainian to Russian to tell Russian citizens that under President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization order, they were being “thrown to death.”

“You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and torture 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, this is a choice between dying or living, becoming crippled or preserving health. For women in Russia, the choice it is losing their husbands, children, grandchildren forever, or even trying to protect them from death, from war, from a single person”.

The vote takes place against the backdrop of incessant 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 Tymoshko said at least 30 of the 436 bodies exhumed so far in Izium had 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 pushed out of the area by a Ukrainian counteroffensive earlier this month. The burial site in the woods was discovered after residents said they were forced to dig graves there.

The exhumations, which began a week ago, are drawing to a close as investigators work to identify the victims and the cause of death. A mobile DNA lab was stationed 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 Friday of possible war crimes, including beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity in Russian detention centers, and expressed serious concern about the killings the team was targeting. working to document in Kharkiv and Kyiv regions. Chernihiv and Sumy.

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

Across the vast country, men hugged their tearful relatives before leaving as part of the convocation, raising fears that a broader convocation could follow. Anti-war activists planned to stage protests on Saturday.

With changing world opinion pushing Moscow into deeper isolation from the war, Russian officials lashed out at the West. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anataly Antonov, said Friday at a conference in Moscow on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that Washington is 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 wounded by Russian shelling in nine Ukrainian regions.

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

Heavy fighting also continued in the Donetsk area, where Russian attacks targeted Toretsk, Sloviansk, and several smaller towns. Russian shelling in Nikopol and Marhanets on the west bank of the Dnieper River killed two people and wounded nine in Marhanets.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said military casualties could exceed 9,000 soldiers killed in action because authorities still do not know how many died in the three-month siege of Mariupol, which fell to the Russians in May.

However, Malyar said Ukraine’s losses were far less than Russia’s. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu earlier reported that 5,937 Russian fighters had been killed.

Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Izium contributed.

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