War in Ukraine: Russia launches referendums in occupied regions as conscription continues

Russia has begun holding referendums in four occupied regions of Ukraine in a move the West has warned is a step towards annexation of the areas.

It comes as videos circulating on social media appear to show men crowding airports in Russia and forming lengthy queues estimated to be up to eight miles long at the border with Georgia, as authorities banned those aged 18 to 65 from leaving the country amid a “partial mobilisation” of the country to fight in Ukraine.

Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this week announced a draft of 300,000 people who had previously served in the military. A year of military service is compulsory for most young people in Russia.

If Russia does annex Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and and in occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, they would officially become part of its territory and could lead to claims from Mr Putin that its territory is under attack from Western weapons supplied to Ukraine.

A man walks down the steps of the embassy of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), the eastern Ukrainian breakaway region, in Moscow on September 23, 2022, as Moscow-held regions of Ukraine vote in annexation referendums that Kyiv and its allies say are illegal and illegitimate.

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Russian news agencies said voting in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces began on Friday morning. The votes are due to run until Tuesday. Door-to-door ballots are being carried out by officials, with polling stations due to open on Tuesday alone.

The idea of a referendum has been mooted for some time, although successes by Ukrainian troops in recent weeks are thought to have encouraged Russia to rush the polls through.

In February, shortly after the initial invasion of Ukraine, Mr Putin said he would recognise the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. The regions, which have had pro-Russian leaders since 2014, have been a location of conflict for the past eight years, with many Ukrainians opting top leave their homes there and live in other parts of Ukraine.

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It is feared Russia could escalate the war if it does annex the regions, as it did with Crimea in 2014, where the Kremlin claimed 96.7 per cent support. A leaked report from Russia's Human Rights Council said only around 30 per cent of people in the region had voted, while only half supported annexation.

“Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, formerly Russian president and now deputy chair of the security council, said in a post on Telegram on Thursday. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.”

Ukrainian officials have dubbed the referendum a sham.

“There is no referendum – there is a propaganda exercise which is being called a referendum,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “It means nothing. It will be a few staged things where there will be Russian television cameras.”

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On a news satire show, Dutch TV host Arjen Lubach, who came under fire recently for jokes about the Queen’s death, said if Mr Putin could hold a referendum in parts of Ukraine, the Netherlands should too.

“He organises a referendum in a country that isn’t even his,” he said. “That’s impossible. And if it is possible, then we can pull it off too.”

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