The vote on whether Russia should annex the Kremlin-controlled regions of Ukraine opened Friday as the West denounced the referendum that dramatically increased the stakes of the seven-month invasion of Moscow.
As the polls got underway, Ukrainian troops said they were pushing back territory from the Moscow-backed separatists, and were contesting the territory the Kremlin wants to control.
The voices in four regions are the latest shocking development in a brutal war that UN investigators say had seen violence — such as executions and torture — amounting to war crimes.
Referendums in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, as well as in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia, have been dismissed as a “sham” by Kiev’s western allies.
And even diplomats from Russia’s closest ally since the start of the war, Beijing, told Ukraine that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected”.
Authorities in the Russian-controlled regions go door-to-door for four days collecting votes. On the last day of voting, polling stations will open on Tuesday for residents to cast their votes.
Voting was also held in the Moscow building that represents the breakaway region of Donetsk.
Leonid, a 59-year-old military official, told UKTN he was “feeling happy”.
“Ultimately, things are moving towards the recovery of the Soviet Union. The referendum is a step in that direction,” he said.
Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces took back most of Kharkov’s northeastern region in a massive counter-offensive that saw Kiev recapture hundreds of settlements that had been under Russian control for months.
On Friday, Russia’s TASS news agency showed officials in Donetsk telling residents about the polls through a loudspeaker, surrounding a local resident as he voted.
Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian separatist leader in the Donetsk region – part of the Donbas industrial region – said on Telegram that “Donbas is Russia”.
Kiev said on Friday that its forces had recaptured a village in the Donetsk region and taken positions south of the war-ravaged city of Bakhmut.
The integration of the four regions in Russia – which is a foregone conclusion for most observers – would greatly escalate the conflict.
“We cannot – we will not – allow (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to get away with it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council on Thursday, condemning the referenda as a “sham.” .
The referenda are reminiscent of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. Western capitals insist a similar vote at the time was fraudulent and hit Moscow with sanctions.
In Donetsk and Lugansk — which Putin recognized as independent before he invaded Ukraine in February — residents are answering whether they support “their republic’s accession to Russia,” TASS reported.
Ballot papers in Kherson and Zaporizhia ask the question: “Are you in favor of secession of Ukraine, creation of an independent state by the region and joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
Russian news agencies reported that voting started Friday at 0500 GMT, while TASS reported that paper ballots would be used to save time.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the referendums as a “farce”.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, met his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba at the UN and told him that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected,” the Beijing ministry said in a statement.