Ukraine annexation votes to end amid Russian mobilization exodus

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Kyiv — Referendums organized by Russia that could lead to the annexation of 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory were due to end on Tuesday, as the Kremlin said it had not made decisions on closing its borders as the first mobilization since World War II caused some to flee.

Voting in the eastern and southeastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia began on Friday and has been dismissed as a farce by Western nations, which have vowed not to recognize the results.

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In Russia, the call-up of some 300,000 reservists has sparked the first sustained protests since the invasion began, with a watchdog group estimating at least 2,000 people have been detained so far. All public criticism of Russia’s “special military operation” is banned.

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Flights out of Russia have sold out and cars have clogged border checkpoints, with reports of a 48-hour queue on the only border road with Georgia, the rare pro-Western neighbor that allows Russian citizens to enter without visa

Asked about the prospect of closing the border, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday: “I don’t know anything about that. So far, no decision has been made.”

Russia has millions of former conscripts as official reservists. Authorities have not specified precisely who is to be called, as that part of President Vladimir Putin’s order is classified.

The mobilization has also seen the first sustained criticism of the authorities within the state-controlled media since the war began.

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But Sergei Tsekov, a senior lawmaker representing Russia-annexed Crimea in Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the RIA news agency: “All people of conscription age should be banned travel abroad in the current situation.”

Two exile news sites, Meduza and Novaya Gazeta Europe, reported that authorities planned to ban the men from leaving, citing unidentified officials.

Moscow says it wants to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Kyiv and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression.


Late on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the military situation in Donetsk, one of the four areas where votes are being held, as difficult.

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“The situation … is particularly serious,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to contain enemy activity. That is our No. 1 objective right now because Donbas remains the No. 1 objective for the occupiers,” referring to the broader region that encompasses Donetsk and Luhansk.

Last week, in what appeared to be choreographed requests, Russian-backed officials there and in other areas that together are roughly the size of Portugal lined up to call for referendums on joining Russia.

The self-styled Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which Putin recognized as independent just before the invasion, and Russian-installed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions called for votes.

Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would defend any territory it annexed using weapons in its arsenal.

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US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that the US would respond “decisively” to any Russian use of nuclear weapons, privately telling Moscow “exactly what that would mean”.

Asked about Sullivan’s comments, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said Monday: “There are channels for dialogue at the appropriate level, but they are of a very sporadic nature. At least they allow for the exchange of some emergency messages about positions of others”.

Moves to annex Ukraine’s regions could happen quickly.

TASS news agency last week quoted an unnamed Duma source as saying the chamber could debate a bill on the incorporation of parts of Ukraine as early as Thursday, while RIA Novosti earlier said Putin he might be preparing to make a formal address to a joint special session of both. houses on Friday

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None of the provinces in question are fully under Moscow’s control and fighting has continued along the entire frontline, with Ukrainian forces reporting more progress since defeating Russian troops in a fifth province, Kharkiv , earlier this month.

The mayor-in-exile of Russian-controlled Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region accused Russia of forcibly conscripting Ukrainian men from the occupied areas into its armed forces and denounced the referendum as “a fake and a farce.”

The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Gaidai, said Russian-backed officials were taking ballot boxes door-to-door, accompanied by security officers, and that residents’ names were being removed if they did not vote as requested.

Even traditional Russian allies like Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognize the annexation votes.

Moscow says the vote is voluntary and turnout is high. When it held a referendum in Crimea after seizing that peninsula in 2014, it declared that 97% of people had voted in favor of annexation.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Costas Pitas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)



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