Russia is set to formally annex parts of Ukraine where occupied areas held a Kremlin-orchestrated “referendum” on living under Moscow’s rule.
According to Associated Press, The Ukrainian government and the West denounced the balloting as illegal and rigged.
Armed troops had gone door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting. The suspiciously high margins in favour were characterised as a land grab by an increasingly cornered Russian leadership after embarrassing military losses in Ukraine.
On Tuesday night, Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed that 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in the Kherson region, 98% in the Luhansk region and 99% in Donetsk.
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.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called the balloting “a propaganda show” and “null and worthless.”
“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,” it said.
Western countries also dismissed the balloting as an attempt by Moscow to legitimise its invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24, 2022.
“Regardless of Russia’s claims, this remains Ukrainian territory and Ukraine has every right to continue to fight for their full sovereignty,” said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
“In response, we will work with our allies and partners to impose additional economic costs” on Russia and supporters of any annexation, she said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged the EU’s 27 member countries to agree on a new package of sanctions on Russia because of the proposed annexations.
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% of the territory.
In an interview with AP, Mykhailo Podolyak an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was determined to reclaim all the territory that Russia has seized during the war.
Podolyak said the annexation by Russia would change nothing on the battlefield.
“Our actions depend not so much on what the Russian Federation thinks or wants, but on the military capabilities that Ukraine has,” he said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the U.S. would not object to Ukraine using U.S.-supplied weapons to attack those areas if they are annexed by Russia.
“We have been clear when it comes to certain longer-range systems with our Ukrainian partners that these systems are for use on sovereign Ukrainian territory. If and when this annexation occurs as we expect it will, these areas will remain sovereign Ukrainian territory,” Price said.
After a counteroffensive by Ukraine this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks, Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists to join the fight. It also warned it could resort to nuclear weapons.
That partial mobilisation is deeply unpopular in some areas, however, triggering protests, scattered violence and Russians fleeing the country by the tens of thousands.