Russia claimed Tuesday that early vote counting in what Western allies say are sham referendums showed Ukrainians in four regions overwhelmingly supporting joining Russia.
State news agency RIA Novosti said that with about a fifth of the vote counted from the five days of balloting in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, more than 97% of the voters in all four regions favored annexation. Together, the regions comprise about 15% of Ukraine’s territory.
The referendums have been widely denounced by Ukraine, the U.S. and other Western countries as an illegal exercise. No matter the outcome announced by Moscow, it is not expected to be accepted globally.
But the balloting, and the widely expected outcome purportedly favoring annexation, would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a pretext to unilaterally change the Russian-Ukraine border and annex the four regions. That, in turn, could portray any attack on them by Kyiv’s forces as an attack on Russia itself.
He said last week that he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia, a threat widely denounced by Ukraine, the U.S. and other Western countries that have sent billions of dollars to the Kyiv government to fend off Russia’s seven-month invasion.
Ukraine has also repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of additional land would destroy any chance of peace talks.
Some Ukrainians reported they were forced at gunpoint by Russian fighters to leave their homes to vote. Voting is ending Tuesday, with the U.S. saying in advance it will not recognize any outcome that Russia announces.
“We stand with our partners around the world in rejecting whatever fabricated outcomes Russia announces,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday.
“As far as what we are doing, we are prepared to impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia, along with our allies and partners, in response to these actions that we’re seeing currently if they move forward with annexation,” Jean-Pierre said. “We’ve been very clear about that.”
The voting began Friday in the Russian-controlled Luhansk and Kherson regions, and in occupied areas of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and the country’s former president, said Tuesday that if Russia is threatened beyond a certain limit, it has the right to respond “without asking anyone’s consent and holding long consultations.”
“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” Medvedev wrote on his messaging app channel. “I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict in that case.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News’s “60 Minutes” show in an interview broadcast late Sunday that the United States has made it clear publicly and privately to Russia to “stop the loose talk about nuclear weapons.”
“It’s very important that Moscow hear from us and know from us that the consequences would be horrific, and we’ve made that very clear,” Blinken said.
A U.S. State Department official said Putin gave the United States and its allies a gift last week by engaging in nuclear saber-rattling, calling for the troop mobilization and announcing the referenda while the U.S. was at the United Nations “talking about sovereignty and international peace and security.” The official said Russia “couldn’t have timed it better to put a spotlight on the grave offenses that Russia is committing to Ukraine and the international order.”
Protests against mobilization
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reported heavy fighting in several areas of Ukraine as he gave his nightly address Monday.
“The situation is particularly intense in the Donetsk region,” he said. “We are doing everything to curb the enemy activity. That is where our number one goal is right now, as Donbas is still the number one goal for the occupiers.”
Zelenskyy called Russia’s mobilization of 300,000 reservists “a sincere attempt to give commanders on the ground a constant stream of cannon fodder.”
Widespread protests against Putin’s troop call-up have erupted in Russia, with police arresting hundreds of demonstrators participating in street protests in Moscow and elsewhere.
In Russia’s Siberia region Monday, a 25-year-old man shot a military commandant at an enlistment center, the local governor said.
Many men opposed to Putin’s war or fearful of being killed on the battlefield have abruptly fled Russia on flights to other countries, while others have joined long lines of cars on land routes headed to the Russian borders with Finland, Georgia and other countries.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.