Vote in Ukraine’s Russia-held areas stokes tension with West

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Kremlin-orchestrated referendums that Moscow is expected to use as a pretext for annexing Russia-controlled regions of Ukraine concluded on Tuesday, heightening tensions with Western countries that have already declared the votes illegitimate .

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine said polling stations closed Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting and ballot counting had begun.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address the referenda before Russia’s parliament on Friday, and Valentina Matviyenko, the leader of the upper house of parliament, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on October 4.

The prospect of annexation sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in Ukraine’s seven-month war, as Russia ramps up warnings it may use nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired lands, and mobilizes more than a quarter of a million more troops that can be stationed on a front line of more than 1,000 km (more than 620 miles).

After the vote, “the situation will change radically from the legal point of view, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protecting these areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, and the UN Security Council was due to meet in New York later Tuesday to discuss a resolution saying the voting results will never be accepted and that the four regions will remain part of Ukraine. Russia will certainly veto the resolution.

Elections, which started Friday in Ukraine’s Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions — as well as a call-up of Russian military reservists ordered by Putin last Wednesday — aim to bolster Moscow’s prominent military and political positions.

The referenda follow a familiar Kremlin playbook for territorial expansion. In 2014, under the close surveillance of Russian troops, Russian authorities held a similar referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Based on the vote, Russia annexed Crimea. As a pretext for his February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Putin cited the defense of Russians living in Ukraine’s eastern regions and their alleged desire to join Russia.

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Putin has been raising Moscow’s nuclear option ever since the Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that has retaken territory and increasingly cornered his forces. A senior Putin adviser escalated nuclear rhetoric on Tuesday.

“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime, which committed a large-scale act of aggression dangerous for the existence of our state,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said that Putin the Chairs wrote on his messaging app channel. “I believe that NATO will refrain from direct interference in the conflict.”

The US has dismissed the Kremlin’s nuclear talks as scaremongering.

The referendums ask residents if they want the territories to be incorporated into Russia, and the Kremlin has presented them as free and fair, reflecting people’s desire for self-determination.

Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions because of the war, and pictures shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to urge Ukrainians to vote.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians took it after months of siege, said only about 20% of the estimated 100,000 remaining residents voted in Donetsk’s referendum. The pre-war population of Mariupol was 541,000.

“A man with an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote. So what can people do?” Boychenko asked during a press conference, explaining how people were forced to vote.

Western allies sided firmly with Ukraine, dismissing the referendum votes as a meaningless sham.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the elections were a “desperate move” by Putin. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said during a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined “to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

She described the votes as “sham referendums”. Ukrainian officials said Paris and Kyiv were closer to an agreement that would supply Ukrainian forces with French Caesar artillery systems.

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Meanwhile, Putin encountered difficulties when he ordered the mass conscription of Russians into active military service.

The order has sparked a massive exodus of men from Russia, fueled protests in many regions and sparked acts of violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire at a recruiting office in a Siberian town, seriously injuring the local chief military recruiting officer. Isolated arson attacks on other recruiting offices had previously been reported.

One destination for fleeing Russian men is Kazakhstan, which reported on Tuesday that about 98,000 Russians had entered Kazakhstan in the past week.

The European Union Border and Coast Guard says 66,000 Russian citizens entered the 27-nation bloc from September 19-25, a 30% increase from the previous week.

Russian officials attempted to intercept some of the fleeing reservists on one of the main escape routes by issuing draft notices at the Georgian border. According to the state agency TASS, a convening task force distributed notices at the Verkhnii Lars checkpoint, where an estimated 5,500 cars were queuing to cross. Independent Russian news sources have reported unverified claims that men of draft age will be barred from leaving the country after the referendum.

As Moscow worked to build up its troops in Ukraine, potentially sending them to supplement its proxies who have been fighting in the separatist regions for eight years, Russian shelling continued to claim lives. Russian barrages killed at least 11 civilians and injured 18 in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

The toll on human lives was also reflected in the first full investigation by a UN human rights monitoring mission into the violations and abuses committed by Russia and Ukraine between February 1 and July 31, the first five months of the Russian invasion , have committed.

Matilda Bogner, the head of the mission, said Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to have been “systematically” mistreated “not only after their capture but also after their transfer to places of internment” in the Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine and Russia itself.

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The war in Ukraine continues to attract global attention as it causes widespread shortages and rising prices not only for food but also for energy, pushing up the cost of living everywhere and worsening global inequality. Talk of nuclear war has only heightened concerns.

Misery and hardship are often the legacy of the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories, which Kiev’s forces have recaptured. Some people have been living without gas, electricity, running water and the internet since March.

The war has created an energy crisis for much of western Europe, with German officials viewing the disruption to Russia’s supplies as a power play by the Kremlin to pressure Europe over its support for Ukraine.

The threat to energy supplies grew as seismologists reported on Tuesday that explosions rattled the Baltic Sea, before unusual leaks were discovered at two undersea natural gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany. Some European leaders and experts pointed to possible sabotage during an energy confrontation with Russia provoked by the war in Ukraine. The three leaks were reported on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which are filled with natural gas but do not deliver the fuel to Europe.

The damage means the pipelines are unlikely to be able to transport gas to Europe this winter, even if the political will to bring them online emerges, analysts at Eurasia Group have said.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov said the pipeline problems were “very alarming” and were being investigated.

In the information battle between the two sides, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, revealed another pillar of the Russian offensive: a widespread disinformation network.

The Russian-originated network aims to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of bogus news websites to spread biased Kremlin talks about invading Ukraine, Meta said on Tuesday.

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Adam Schreck and Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press