Referendum vote to wrap up in Russian-held regions of Ukraine
The five-day voting, in which residents are asked whether they want their regions to become part of Russia, has been anything but free or fair
Kyiv, Ukraine: The final day of voting was taken place in Russian-held regions of Ukraine Tuesday, a referendum that is expected to serve as a pretext for their annexation by Moscow but that is rejected as a sham by Kyiv and its Western allies.
As the vote was nearing its end, a senior Kremlin official issued the bluntest warning yet that Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons to halt a Ukrainian push to reclaim Russia-occupied areas.
The five-day voting, in which residents are asked whether they want their regions to become part of Russia, has been anything but free or fair. Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.
The balloting on Tuesday was held at polling stations.
The Kremlin is expected to move immediately to absorb the regions once the voting is over, with President Vlaidmir Putin expected to declare their incorporation into Russia later this week.
Russian media also speculated that Putin may follow up on last week’s order of partial mobilization by declaring martial law and shutting the nation’s borders for all men of fighting age.
The mobilization has triggered a massive exodus of men from the country, fueled protests in many regions across Russia and sparked occasional acts of violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire in an enlistment office in a Siberian city and gravely wounded the local chief military recruitment officer. The shooting came after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices.
In the latest move to stem the tide of men fleeing Russia to avoid mobilization, Russian officials declared plans to set up a military recruitment office right on the border with Georgia, one of the main routes of the exodus.
And trying to assuage public outrage, numerous Russian officials and lawmakers have acknowledged that mistakes were made during the mobilization — when military conscription offices were rounding up random people without military experience who weren’t supposed to be called up — and promised to quickly correct them.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday once again decried the Russian mobilization as nothing more than “an attempt to provide commanders on the ground with a constant stream of cannon fodder.”
Zelenskyy vowed that the Ukrainian military will push efforts to take back “the entire territory of Ukraine,” and has drawn up plans to counter “new types of weapons” used by Russia.
Putin has warned that once the Russia-held regions are absorbed, Moscow will defend its territory with “all available means,” including nuclear weapons, raising fears of a sharp escalation of the seven-month conflict.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, spelled out the threat Tuesday in the bluntest terms yet, reaffirming that Moscow could use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if it sees a threat posed by it as too high.
Medvedev noted that the US and its NATO allies understand that “if a threat to Russia raises above a certain limit of danger, we will have to respond without asking anyone’s consent and holding long consultations.”
“And it’s certainly not a bluff,” he added.
Medvedev charged that the US and its NATO allies won’t dare to use nuclear weapons against Russia even if it makes a nuclear strike on Ukraine.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said Russia would pay a high, if unspecified, price if it made good on veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
“If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively,” he told NBC.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday that Putin had told Turkey’s president last week that Moscow was ready to resume negotiations with Ukraine but had “new conditions” for a cease-fire.
Even as the voting has continued in Russia-held areas, Russian forces have kept up their strikes across Ukraine. Overnight, Russian missile attacks targeted the southern areas of Zaporizhzhia and Mykolaiv, damaging residential buildings and other sites, officials said.
Ukraine in recent days has faced a blistering onslaught of Russian artillery fire and drone attacks, with the shelling especially intense in Kherson
US media recently reported that some senior officials were beginning to encourage Ukraine to consider talks, which Zelensky has so far rejected without a prior withdrawal of Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory
Ukrainian emergency services said Russian rockets smashed into a building overnight in Vilniansk, part of the southern Zaporizhzhia region, in the latest attack to damage medical facilities since war began nine months ago