(CNN) — Four areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia began voting on Friday in referendums on their accession to this country, in a measure that raises the risks of an invasion of Moscow seven months after the start of the fighting.
The referendums, which are illegal under international law, could pave the way for Russia’s annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the current Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.
This move could provide Moscow with a pretext to escalate its faltering war, in which Kyiv has recaptured thousands of square kilometers of territory this month.
In his speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons and said he would use “all means at our disposal” if he felt Russia’s “territorial integrity” was endangered.
The votes, which are expected to take place over five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the Russian-controlled areas of Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, and the ballot questions vary slightly by region. Together, the four regions represent about 18% of the Ukrainian territory.
The referendums, which are being held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by both the Ukrainian government and its allies in the West as “a sham”. The European Union said it will not recognize the results and indicated that it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
“The parliaments of the Donbas people’s republics and the civil-military administration of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They have asked Russia to support this step, and we have stressed that we will do everything possible to guarantee security conditions for people to express their will,” he said.
In both the Luhansk and Zaporizhia regions, local authorities have urged citizens to vote from home, saying they can bring ballot boxes to them.
Before the votes, the pro-Russian authorities have tried to excite the voters. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster distributed in Luhansk that reads: “Russia is the future”.
“We are united by a 1,000-year history,” he says. “For centuries, we have been part of the same great country. The breakdown of the state was a huge political disaster. … It is time to restore historical justice.”
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live close to the front lines, would be successful or fair. In addition, due to widespread internal displacement since the start of the conflict, voting databases are likely to be out of date. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials have said that about half of the prewar population has left.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the elections, condemned what it said were “illegal referendums.”
“Any so-called ‘referendum’ planned by or with the support of the forces illegally exercising de facto control over the occupied territories of Ukraine would contravene international norms and obligations under international humanitarian law, and its outcome would therefore not will have legal force,” said the OSCE, which oversees elections in 57 member states.
A referendum organized in Crimea in 2014, in which 97% of voters officially backed annexation, was ratified by Russian lawmakers within a week.
On this occasion, some regions plan to announce the results of the referendums before others. Authorities in Luhansk said they would announce the results the day after the vote was completed, while in Kherson, authorities would wait five days after the polls closed.
Earlier this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas had indicated that possible votes would be postponed due to the security situation, as Ukrainian forces advance their offensives in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhia, and positions and supply lines Russians in Kherson suffer almost daily attacks from Ukrainian artillery.
Earlier this week there was a sudden and synchronized change of heart.
Since then, Russian politicians have been quick to offer their support, pointing out that when these regions join Russia — assuming the vote is in favor — they will be entitled to Moscow’s full protection.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said that Russia will have a duty to protect these regions and that any attack on them will be considered an attack on Russia “with all its consequences.”
Former Russian President and Deputy Chairman of the Russian National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, was more explicit in stating that this would be of “huge importance” for the “systemic protection” of residents and that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used to defend the territories attached to Russia from Ukraine.
“The invasion of Russian territory is a crime that allows the use of all self-defense forces,” Medvedev said.
Source: CNN Espanol