Ukrainians spooked by Russia’s predestined referendums

FILE - Russian recruits board a bus near a military recruiting center in Krasnodar, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to bolster his forces in Ukraine.  (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Russian recruits board a bus near a military recruiting center in Krasnodar, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to bolster his forces in Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

PA

After seven months of war, many Ukrainians fear even more suffering and political repression as Kremlin-orchestrated referendums point to imminent Russian annexation of four occupied regions.

Many residents fled the areas before the so-called referendums began, fearing they would be forced to vote or possibly drafted into the Russian army. Others described hiding behind closed doors, hoping to avoid having to respond to armed soldiers going door to door collecting votes.

Petro Kobernik, who left the Russian-held southern city of Kherson just before the predestined vote began on Friday, said the prospect of living under Russian law and the escalating war made him and others, extremely nervous about the future.

“The situation is changing rapidly and people are afraid of being injured either by the Russian army or by Ukrainian guerrillas and advancing Ukrainian troops,” Kobernik, 31, said in a telephone interview.

As some Russian officials brought ballots to neighborhoods accompanied by armed police, Kobernik said his 70-year-old father locked the door to his private home in the village of Novotroitske – part of Kherson – and swore to don’t let anyone in.

The referendums, denounced by Kyiv and its Western allies as rigged, are taking place in the Russian-controlled Luhansk and Kherson regions, and in the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. They are widely seen as a pretext for annexation, and Russian authorities are expected to announce the regions as their own once voting is complete on Tuesday.

The Kremlin has used this tactic before. In 2014, he organized a hastily organized referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region to justify the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, a move denounced as illegitimate by most of the world.

Ukrainian authorities told residents of the four Russian-occupied regions that they would face criminal penalties if they voted and advised them to leave.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began mobilizing more troops for the war last week, said he was ready to use nuclear weapons to protect territory in a clear threat to Ukraine to end its attempts to reconquer the regions.

Putin’s growing rhetoric and politically risky decision to call up up to 300,000 army reservists comes after the Russians were hastily forced to withdraw from large swaths of northeastern Ukraine at the start of the month. A fierce Ukrainian counter-offensive continues in the east and south of the country.

The Moscow-appointed governor of the southern Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, vowed that Ukrainian attempts to derail the referendum by bombing the city would not succeed.

“It’s complicated because of the security issues, but everything will be done to make the ballot safe for voters and election officials,” Saldo said in a video address. “People are waiting to join Russia and want it to happen as soon as possible.”

Moscow-backed separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk say most residents of these territories have dreamed of joining Russia since Russia annexed Crimea.

But many locals tell a different story.

“The streets are empty because people are staying at home,” Marina Irkho, a 38-year-old resident of the port city of Berdyansk on the Sea of ​​Azov, said by phone. “Nobody wants them to declare us part of Russia and start rounding up our men.”

She said “those who actively defended Ukraine have left or gone into hiding”, adding that many older people who supported Russia have stayed but are afraid.

Ukrainian guerrillas have continuously targeted Moscow-appointed officials in occupied areas.

Just a week before the referendum, a deputy head of Berdyansk city administration and his wife who headed the city’s election commission were killed in an attack.

Members of the Yellow Band guerrilla group named after Ukraine’s yellow and blue national flag distributed leaflets threatening those who vote and urged residents to send in photos and videos of people who vote to find them more late.

The guerrillas also published the phone numbers of the heads of electoral commissions in the Kherson region, calling on pro-Ukrainian activists to “make their lives unbearable”.

Ukrainian officials say signs of the referendums’ illegitimacy are everywhere.

“Russians see the fear and reluctance of citizens to vote, so they are forced to take people in,” said Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of the Russian city of Melitopol, who was detained and detained by the Russians before. to leave. the city.

“Groups of collaborators and Russians accompanied by armed troops go from apartment to apartment, but few people open the doors,” Fedorov said. “The haste with which they organized this pseudo-referendum shows that they were not even going to seriously count the ballots.”

Larysa Vinohradova, a resident of the port city of Mariupol who left the city after the Russian invasion, said many of her friends stayed because they had to care for elderly parents who refused to flee. “They are not defending Russia, they want Mariupol to be part of Ukraine, and they are waiting for it,” she said, breaking down in tears.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai, who left the area after it was swept away by Russian forces, said residents fear the Russians may be rounding up more men in the area for military service following the order of Putin’s mobilization.

“The Russians are using this pseudo-referendum as a pretext for armed people to visit apartments and look for the remaining men to mobilize them and also look for anything suspicious and pro-Ukrainian,” Haidai told The Associated Press.

“The rapid Ukrainian counter-offensive scared the Russians away,” he added.

Analysts say Putin hopes to use the threat of a military escalation to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate with the Kremlin.

“The haste with which the referenda were called shows the Kremlin’s weakness, not its strength,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center, an independent Kyiv-based think tank. “The Kremlin is struggling to find levers to influence the situation that is beyond its control.”

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Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

This story was originally published September 26, 2022 2:31 a.m.

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