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Putin WINS his sham referendums! Kremlin reports Ukrainian territories vote to join Russia

The Kremlin has reported that residents of occupied Ukrainian territories voted overwhelmingly to join Russia after being marched to the ballot box at gunpoint.

First partial voting results in Moscow’s sham referendums in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine unsurprisingly came out in favour of annexation by Russia, Russian state news said on Tuesday.

And later results from the election charade continued the trend. 

Hastily arranged votes had taken place over five days in the four areas – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – that make up about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory. 

Russian-installed officials accompanied by machinegun-toting henchmen took ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West said was an illegitimate, coercive exercise designed to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions. 

President Vladimir Putin could then portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the ‘territorial integrity’ of Russia. 

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO General Secretary, condemned the ‘sham referenda’ on Twitter, lambasting them as having ‘no legitimacy’ and being a ‘blatant violation of international law.’

‘Just spoke with President Zelensky and made clear that NATO allies are unwavering in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to self-defence,’ he wrote. 

Officials in Kyiv hit back against the transparent land grab by declaring the votes ‘will not have any influence’ on battlefield, where Ukrainian forces are in ascendancy.  

A man in military fatigues casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum on the joining of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to Russia, in Donetsk, which Russian state media say has voted by 98 per cent to join Russia with 14 per cent of the vote counted

A referendum official walks past a gun-toting militiaman in Donetsk as the hurried votes were carried out under the eyes of armed men

A referendum official walks past a gun-toting militiaman in Donetsk as the hurried votes were carried out under the eyes of armed men

‘The main thing is that these actions, this decision by Putin, will not have any influence on the politics, diplomacy and actions of Ukraine on the battlefield,’ Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said during a press conference with his French counterpart Catherine Colonna. 

The local poll body in the southern Zaporizhzhia region said 93.11 percent of voters opted for Russian annexation after all ballots were counted.

It said however that this was a preliminary result.

In Kherson, also in the south, authorities said 87.05 percent of voters opted for Russian annexation after a vote count was completed.

In the eastern Lugansk region controlled by pro-Russia separatists, 98.42 percent opted for annexation by Russia, Russian news agencies said, citing local authorities.

‘It is clear’ that Lugansk will return to the Russian fold, Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, said on Telegram.

In the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, the poll body said 99.23 percent of voters opted for Russian annexation after all ballots were counted, according to news agencies.

Denis Pushilin, the Kremlin-backed separatist leader in Donetsk, said: ‘We have all wanted this for a very long time’, according to Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

He welcomed what he called the ‘colossal’ result, saying: ‘We are reuniting with our great homeland, with great Russia’.

The United Nations meanwhile said it was ‘committed’ to Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’ within ‘recognised’ borders.

Vladimir Putin announced the plan to hold snap votes in the regions of Ukraine that his armed forced had invaded and managed to occupy last week

Vladimir Putin announced the plan to hold snap votes in the regions of Ukraine that his armed forced had invaded and managed to occupy last week

Possibly explaining the lower favorable vote in Kherson is that Russian authorities there have faced a strong Ukrainian underground resistance movement whose members have killed Moscow-appointed officials and threatened those who considered voting.

In a remark that appeared to rule out negotiations, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy told the U.N. Security Council by video from Kyiv that Russia’s attempts to annex Ukrainian territory will mean ‘there is nothing to talk about with this president of Russia.’

He added that ‘any annexation in the modern world is a crime, a crime against all states that consider the inviolability of border to be vital for themselves.’

The preordained outcome sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in Russia’s seven-month war, with the Kremlin threatening to throw more troops into the battle and potentially use nuclear weapons.

Ukraine has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of additional territories would destroy any chance of peace talks, seven months after Moscow launched its invasion of the country.

Russia says it is up to the people of the four regions to decide for themselves if they want to come under Moscow’s rule. 

In the run-up to the votes, Russia acted to ‘Russify’ the occupied territories, including by issuing people with Russian passports and rewriting school curriculums.

Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that if the referendum results were favourable, it could consider the incorporation of the four regions on October 4. 

A man holds his ballot as he leaves a voting booth at a polling station during a referendum in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, as the charade of a free and fair vote was maintained

A man holds his ballot as he leaves a voting booth at a polling station during a referendum in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, as the charade of a free and fair vote was maintained

A woman votes in a referendum at a polling station in Donetsk

A woman gestures toward a photographer after voting in a referendum at a polling station in Donetsk

The majorities in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were just under 98 per cent, with 14 per cent and 13 per cent respectively of votes tallied

The foreign ministers of France and Ukraine slammed the ‘mock referendums’ in the occupied territories and Moscow’s escalating threats of a nuclear war.

Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, with the U.N. Security Council discussing a resolution that says the voting results will never be accepted and that the four regions remain part of Ukraine. Russia is certain to veto the resolution. 

Russia ramped up warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired land, and continued mobilizing more than a quarter-million additional troops to deploy to a front line of more than 1,000 km.

After the balloting, ‘the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

Catherine Colonna of France and Dmytro Kuleba of Ukraine spoke at a joint news conference in Kyiv.

Russia and its ‘unnecessary, illegal, unjust war, threatens the very foundations of the rules-based international order,’ Colonna said. 

‘France has been at your side since the start of the Russian aggression and will remain so until Ukraine recovers its full sovereignty and territorial integrity.’

Votes were held in four areas currently under Russian control - Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia

Votes were held in four areas currently under Russian control – Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia

Kuleba said the Russian votes about the separation from Ukraine and joining Russia present a ‘performance which won’t have any consequences and influence on the politics and diplomacy.’

He added that the voting shows Russia doesn’t wish a peaceful outcome: ‘Russia doesn’t want any peace talks; please, stop playing this game.’

Colonna also announced the arrival of a new mission of French experts to assist in investigations in Ukraine of atrocities. Kuleba said the talks also focused on the transfer from France of more CAESAR artillery systems to Ukraine.

The British Ministry of Defence assessed as a ‘realistic possibility’ that Putin might be planning to announce the annexation of the occupied territories this Friday when he addresses both chambers of the Russian Duma. 

The hasty move to incorporate Ukrainian territory into Russia proper gives rise to the fear that Putin will claim integral Russian land is under threat if and when Ukraine moves to liberate it, justifying the use of nuclear weapons in 'self-defence'

The hasty move to incorporate Ukrainian territory into Russia proper gives rise to the fear that Putin will claim integral Russian land is under threat if and when Ukraine moves to liberate it, justifying the use of nuclear weapons in ‘self-defence’

The hasty move to incorporate Ukrainian territory into Russia proper gives rise to the fear that Putin will claim integral Russian land is under threat if and when Ukraine moves to liberate it, justifying the use of nuclear weapons according to Russia’s nuclear doctrine. 

And one of Vladimir Putin’s attack dogs has been rattling the nuclear sabre once again as he declared that his master was not bluffing in his threats against the West.

Dmitri Medvedev, a former Russian president, said in a now customary rant on the Telegram messaging app that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons ‘if the use of conventional weapons threatens the very existence of our state.’

‘And it is certainly not a bluff,’ he added. 

Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (right, with Putin, left) has reiterated Putin's threats to use nuclear weapons, saying it is 'certainly not a bluff'

Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (right, with Putin, left) has reiterated Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons, saying it is ‘certainly not a bluff’

The latest threat of nuclear annihilation follows on from Putin’s bluster during a televised address broadcast last week when he announced a partial mobilisation of Russian men. 

During the speech, he raised the spectre of a nuclear strike if he deemed the ‘territorial integrity’ of Russia to be under threat. 

The Kremlin is clearly fearful of a well-train and battle-hardened Ukrainian army, fresh with modern Western weapons, moving to liberate the stolen territories and sweeping the Russian army out of its homeland. 

Medvedev was dismissive of Western warnings of ‘catastrophic consequences for Russia’ if they used nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine and indicated he thought they were bluffs. 

‘I believe that NATO will not directly intervene in the conflict even in this situation. After all, the security of Washington, London, and Brussels is much more important for the North Atlantic Alliance than the fate of the perishing Ukraine, which no one needs, even if it is abundantly supplied with various weapons,’ he wrote.

‘Biden and Truss, spraying Atlantic saliva, demand that Russia remove its hand from its ”nuclear button.” 

‘Together, they constantly threaten us with ”terrifying” consequences if Russia uses nuclear weapons. 

‘And the London aunt [Truss], young in mind, is completely ready to immediately begin an exchange of nuclear strikes with our country.’ 

A hospitalised man casts his ballot into a mobile ballot box as members of an electoral commission visit patients of a hospital

A hospitalised man casts his ballot into a mobile ballot box as members of an electoral commission visit patients of a hospital

The moves to mobilise the Russian population and rush through sham referendums in the occupied regions are seen as desperate ploys by analysts, prompted by public misgivings from Putin’s key allies of India, China and Turkey at a summit two weeks ago. 

The announcement of the partial mobilisation has seen thousands of men called up to fight in the Russian army, along with chaotic scenes of Russians streaming out of the country, protests in the regions and unruly drinking and brawling by fresh conscripts. 

The referendums follow a familiar Kremlin playbook for territorial expansion and more aggressive military action. 

In 2014, Russian authorities held a similar referendum on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, under the close watch of Russian troops. Based on the voting, Russia annexed Crimea. Putin cited the defense of Russians living in Ukraine’s eastern regions, their supposed desires to join with Russia, and an existential security threat to Russia as a pretext for his February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Putin has been talking up Moscow’s nuclear option since Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that reclaimed territory and has increasingly cornered his forces. A top Putin aide ratcheted up the nuclear rhetoric Tuesday.

‘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,’ Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council that Putin chairs, wrote on his messaging app channel. ‘I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict.’

The United States has dismissed the Kremlin’s nuclear talk as a scare tactic.

The referendums asked residents whether they want the areas to be incorporated into Russia, and the Kremlin has portrayed them as free and fair, reflective of the people’s desire for self-determination.

People line up to vote in a referendum in Luhansk, Luhansk People's Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Sept. 24, 2022

People line up to vote in a referendum in Luhansk, Luhansk People’s Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Sept. 24, 2022

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

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

‘A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?’ Boychenko asked during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting.

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

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the ballots were ‘a desperate move’ by Putin. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said while visiting Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined ‘to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity’ and described the ballots as ‘mock referendums.’ 

Elsewhere, trouble emerged for Putin in the mass call-up he ordered of Russians to active military duty.

The order has triggered an exodus of nearly 200,000 men from Russia, fueled anti-war protests and sparked violence. 

On Monday, a gunman opened fire in an enlistment office in a Siberian city and gravely wounded the local chief military recruitment officer. Scattered arson attacks had been reported earlier on other enlistment offices.

One destination of fleeing Russian men is Kazakhstan, which reported Tuesday that about 98,000 Russians have crossed into Kazakhstan over the past week.

The European Union’s border and coast guard agency says 66,000 Russian citizens entered the 27-nation bloc from Sept. 19 to 25, a 30 per cent increase over the preceding week.

Russian officials tried to intercept some of the fleeing reservists on one of the main exodus routes, issuing conscription notices on the Georgian border. 

According to the state-run Tass agency, an enlistment task force was handing out notices at the Verkhnii Lars checkpoint, where an estimated 5,500 cars were lining up to cross. Independent Russian news sources have reported unconfirmed claims that draft-age men will be banned from leaving 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 the past eight years, Russian shelling continued to claim lives. Russian barrages killed at least 11 civilians and wounded 18 in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Tuesday.

In other developments, Ukrainian authorities reported more success in their counteroffensive to reclaim territory in some of the very regions where Russia is staging the referendums to consolidate its grip.

Ukrainian troops claimed to continue their push beyond the Oskil River in the country’s east, pressing further into the Donbas. A video on social media Tuesday showed Ukrainian soldiers entering the village of Koroviy Yar, 15 kilometers from the river. 

Ukraine’s military intelligence said that the country’s forces continued to force Russian troops out of the northeastern Kharkiv region and claimed to recapture the major railway junction of Kupyansk-Vuzlovyi.

The war’s human toll was also reflected in a U.N. human rights monitoring mission’s first comprehensive look at violations and abuses Russia and Ukraine committed between Feb. 1 and July 31, the first five months of Russia’s invasion.

Matilda Bogner, the mission’s chief, said Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to have faced ‘systematic’ mistreatment, ‘not only upon their capture, but also following their transfer to places of internment’ in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine and Russia itself.

The war has brought an energy crunch for much of Western Europe, with German officials seeing the disruption of Russian supplies as a Kremlin power play to pressure Europe over its support for Ukraine.

The danger to energy supplies grew when seismologists reported Tuesday that explosions rattled the Baltic Sea before unusual leaks were discovered on two underwater natural gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany. Some European leaders and experts pointed to possible sabotage during an energy standoff 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 not delivering the fuel to Europe.

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

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