Such a move might provide Moscow with an excuse to escalate its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv reclaim thousands of square miles of land this month.
In a speech on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his speech, saying he would use “every means at our disposal”, if he deemed Russia’s “territorial integrity” to be endangered.
Pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in the Russian-controlled parts of Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south, called for the vote, which is expected to take place over five days, with questions about the balloting. It varies slightly by region. The four regions together make up about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.
The plans, which are under military occupation and are actually implemented at gunpoint, have been strongly condemned by the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West, calling them “fake”. The European Union said it would not recognize the results and indicated that it was preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia.
Putin endorsed the two referendums in an address to the nation on Wednesday.
“The parliaments of the Donbass People’s Republics, the civil and military administration of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions decided to hold a referendum on the future of these territories. They asked Russia to support this step, and stressed that we will do everything possible to ensure safe conditions for people to express their will.
In the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes could be brought to them.
Russian and pro-Russian forces control almost the entire Luhansk region. But it remains in dispute – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Belhorivka earlier this week.
The Ukrainian governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region said on Friday that “the Russians will calculate and come up with any favorable outcome for them” in what he called a “sham referendum”.
“The opinion of the residents does not matter,” Sarhi Heidi said on Telegram, adding that “an armed man is involved in every polling station, and his appearance should force people to meekly cast their votes.”
Before the vote, the pro-Russian authorities tried to excite the voters. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster being distributed in Luhansk. It reads, “Russia is the future.”
“We are united by a 1,000-year history,” she says. “For centuries, we have been part of the same great country. The disintegration of the state was a huge political catastrophe…It is time to restore historical justice.”
Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live near the front lines of the conflict, will be successful or fair. In addition, due to the prevalence of internal displacement since the beginning of the conflict, voting databases are likely to be outdated. In Kherson for example, Ukrainian officials said about half of the pre-war population had left.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the elections, condemned what it described as “illegal referendums”.
“Any alleged ‘referendums’ planned by or with the support of forces unlawfully exercising effective control in the occupied territories of Ukraine would be in contravention of international standards and obligations under international humanitarian law, and therefore their outcome would not be lawful,” the OSCE said, which monitors elections in 57 member states.
Russian lawmakers ratified a referendum organized in Crimea in 2014, which officially saw 97% of voters return to annexation, within a week.
This time around, some regions plan to announce results sooner than others. Authorities in Luhansk said they will announce results the day after voting ends, while in Kherson, authorities will wait five days after polls close.
Prior to this week, pro-Russian officials in the occupied territories had indicated that possible votes would be postponed due to the security situation – Ukrainian forces are advancing with attacks in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya, and Russian outposts and supply lines are coming into Kherson. Under almost daily strikes from the Ukrainian artillery.
A sudden, simultaneous change of heart occurred at the beginning of this week.
Russian politicians have since been quick to lend their support, noting that when these regions join Russia – assuming the votes are in favor – they will enjoy Moscow’s full protection.
Russian MP Konstantin Kosachev said that Russia has a duty to protect these areas and that any attack on them would be considered an attack on Russia “with all the consequences it entails.”
Former Russian President and Deputy Chairman of the Russian National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev was more explicit, saying that this would be of “great importance” for the “systematic protection” of the population and that any weapons in Moscow’s arsenal, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used for territorial defense Which joined Russia from Ukraine.
“The encroachment on Russian territory is a crime that allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said.
CNN’s Mick Criver contributed to this report.
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