Russia is poised to formally annex parts of Ukraine after the Kremlin conducted a “referendum” in four occupied regions to join Moscow’s rule – a move decried by the Ukrainian government and the West.
Armed troops had gone door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting in Russian-occupied regions that make up about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed on Tuesday night that 93 percent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhia region supported annexation, as did 87 percent in the Kherson region, 98 percent in the Luhansk region and 99 percent in Donetsk.
The suspiciously high margins in favor were widely characterized as a bogus land grab by an increasingly cornered Russian leadership following recent military losses in Kharkiv in northern Ukraine.
“Forcing people in these territories to fill out some papers at the barrel of a gun is yet another Russian crime in the course of its aggression against Ukraine,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said, adding that the balloting was “a propaganda show” and “null and worthless”.
The ministry asked the European Union, NATO and the Group of Seven major industrial nations to “immediately and significantly” step up pressure on Russia with new sanctions and by significantly increasing their military aid to Kyiv.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged the EU’s 27 member countries to agree on a new package of sanctions on Russian officials and trade in response to the “sham referendums”. She labeled the ballots “an illegal attempt to grab land and change international borders by force”.
Pro-Russia officials in the four regions said they would ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to incorporate their provinces into Russia on the basis of announced vote results. Separatist leaders Leonid Pasechnik in Luhansk and Denis Pushilin in Donetsk said they were leaving for Moscow to settle the annexation formalities.
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Moscow, said Putin was expected to “officially declare” the annexation of the four regions following those meetings and after Russia’s parliament has given its approval for such moves. Reports suggest this could take place before the end of this week.
‘Liberate our territory’
Western countries, however, dismissed the balloting as a meaningless pretense staged by Moscow in an attempt to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Washington would propose a Security Council resolution to condemn the voting. The resolution would urge member states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and include a demand for Russia to withdraw its troops from its neighbour, she tweeted.
The Kremlin remained unmoved amid the hail of criticism. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that, at the very least, Russia intended to drive Ukrainian forces out of the Donetsk region, where Moscow’s troops and separatist forces currently control about 60 percent of the territory.
In an interview with The Associated Press, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine was determined to reclaim all the territory that Russia has seized during seven months of war. At the same time, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak insisted that annexation by Russia would change nothing on the battlefield.
“We will liberate our territory by military means,” Podolyak said. “And for us, our actions depend not so much on what the Russian Federation thinks or wants, but on the military capabilities that Ukraine has.”
Russia is calling up 300,000 reservists to fight in the war and warned it could resort to nuclear weapons after this month’s counteroffensive by Ukraine dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks. The partial mobilization is deeply unpopular in some areas – triggering protests, scattered violence and Russians fleeing the country by the tens of thousands.
Meanwhile, three explosions were heard, and then electricity cut out in Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, Reuters news agency reported.
US officials said Washington is preparing a new $1.1bn weapons package for Ukraine that will be announced soon.
Europe is also investigating what Germany, Denmark and Sweden have said were attacks that caused major leaks into the Baltic Sea from two Russian gas pipelines at the center of an energy standoff. Officials did not say who they believed may be responsible.