Armed police are going door-to-door while gun-toting mercenaries are guarding polling stations as Russian stages sham referendums in occupied Ukraine.
‘Voting’ is now underway in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions on whether or not to become provinces of Russia – with the results fixed by Moscow.
But, just to make extra sure, Kremlin officials, military police and hired guns are keeping a careful eye over the process – with Ukrainian politicians reporting that they are kicking front doors in to force people to cast their ballots .
Serhiy Haidai, governor of occupied Luhansk, said some towns under Russian occupation have been entirely sealed off to ensure people vote – with any crosses in the ‘no’ column recorded in a ‘notebook’.
Meanwhile state media has reported an unfeasibly high 97 per cent of people in two of those regions – Donetsk and Luhansk – are in favour of joining Russia.
Ballot boxes have also been opened across Russia itself, ostensibly to allow displaced Ukrainians to vote, but in reality offer more opportunities for vote rigging.
Russian military police, armed with rifles, accompany election officials into an apartment block in occupied Ukraine as referendum ‘voting’ gets underway
Election officials carrying a clear ballot box (left) are let into an apartment block in occupied Ukraine accompanied by armed Russian cops (right)
A Russian mercenary wearing the symbol of the notorious Wagner military group stands guard outside a polling station in occupied Ukraine
Russian state media has issued implausible polling which suggests 97 per cent of people in Donetsk and Luhansk are in favour of joining Russia
Western leaders have declared the referenda to be a sham, saying they have no legitimacy while urging other governments not to recognise the results.
However, the votes do still mark a significant moment in the war because it will allow Putin to spin the narrative to his own people that any Ukrainian attack to try and reclaim those territories is an assault on Russia itself.
That expands the suite of options he can use in response.
Perhaps most worryingly, it opens the path to using nuclear weapons since Russia’s doctrine allows their use if the existence of the state is threatened.
It would also allow Putin to upgrade his ‘special military operation’ to a full-blown war, expanding his powers to conscript men and punish those who try to quit.
A copy of the ballot papers being handed to people, asking whether or not they agree to become part of Russia
This week, he has declared a ‘partial mobilisation’ of Russia’s population and appears intent on forcing hundreds of thousands of men into the military.
New laws have extended soldiers’ contracts indefinitely, meaning they cannot simply quit if they don’t want to keep fighting.
As the votes was getting underway in the occupied regions, Russian social media sites were full of dramatic scenes of tearful families bidding farewell to men departing from military mobilization centers.
In cities across the vast country, men hugged their weeping family members before departing as part of the draft.
Russian anti-war activists, in the meantime, planned more protests against the mobilization.
Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region, called the referendum on Friday ‘a historical milestone.’
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, addressed the occupied regions Friday in an online statement, saying: ‘If you decide to become part of the Russian Federation – we will support you.’
Valentina Matviyenko, chair of Russia’s upper parliament house, said that residents of the occupied regions were voting for ‘life or death’ at the referendums.
Volodymyr Zelensky today called on Russians to ‘protest’ the partial mobilisation announced by Vladimir Putin, and told Kremlin troops in Ukraine to ‘fight back, run away or surrender’.
Votes are being held in four areas currently under Russian control – Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia
Putin has begun staging sham referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine that will almost certainly end with the regions being annexed to Russia
Makeshift voting stations have been set up in residential areas but police and occupation officials will also go door-to-door to ensure the outcome
Locals attend a temporary polling station amidst sham referendums in Luhansk
Locals attend a referendum at a mobile polling station in Luhansk, Ukraine
In his daily address, Zelensky said: ‘55,000 Russian soldiers died in these six months of war. Do you want more? No? Then protest. Fight back, run away, or surrender’ to our army.’
Zelensky also told the Russian people today that are ‘complicit’ in Putin’s brutal invasion which has seen alleged torture and the murder of civilians as he then said conscripts had a choice to ‘live, die or become a cripple’ if they cannot stop being shoved off to the front lines.
All flights out of Russia to neighbouring areas that allow visa-free entry were nearly entirely booked today while prices also skyrocketed as the partial mobilisation, which so far applies to 300,000 military reservists, begins.
The Russian President’s call for thousands more troops yesterday was also accompanied by fresh threats of nuclear war towards Ukraine and its Western allies.
The voting takes place against the backdrop of incessant fighting in Ukraine, with Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanging fire as both sides refuse to concede ground.
On Friday morning, pro-Russia officials in the Zaporizhzhia region reported a loud blast in the center of Melitopol, a city that Moscow captured early on in the war.
Official Vladimir Rogov didn’t offer any details as to what caused the explosion and whether there was damage and casualties.
Moscow-backed authorities in the Donetsk region also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the city of Donetsk, the region’s capital, and the nearby city of Yasynuvata.
Ukrainian officials, in turn, reported new rounds of Russian shelling in various parts of the country.
Vladimir Putin is expected to use the sham votes to claim that Ukraine is attacking Russian soil, potentially opening the door to a nuclear escalation
Locals cast ballots in sham votes in occupied Donetsk, amid reports that Russian soldiers are taking note of those voting ‘no’
Voters cast their ballots under the watchful eye of the Russian military (left)
Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine that borders the Kherson region, said explosions rang out in the city of Mykolaiv in the early hours of Friday.
Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said the Russians unleashed a barrage of shelling on Nikopol, a city across from the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, on Friday morning.
Russia is now almost seven months into what Putin anticipated would be a days-long war to depose the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime.
But instead he has found himself locked into a grinding war of attrition against a determined enemy backed by Western weapons and money.
China and India – both of whom had good relations with Putin before the war — have distanced themselves from his regime, while even North Korea has said it won’t supply arms to Russia because it will ‘tarnish’ its image.
More protests have been organised by anti-war groups, as opposition to the invasion grows.
There were also reports of a mass exodus following the announcement. On Thursday the Kremlin dismissed as ‘fake’ reports that Russians eligible for mobilisation were rushing for the exit.
Speaking in the House of Commons this afternoon, Armed Forces minister James Heappey described how ‘rattled’ Mr Putin’s action was an acknowledgement of Russia’s ‘failure’.
Mr Heappey, who noted how 25,000 Russians have already died during the Ukraine conflict, told MPs that Moscow was now condemning hundreds of thousands more troops to a miserable winter.
‘Russian conscripts are going to suffer horribly for the Kremlin’s hubris,’ the minister added.
Ex-prime minister Boris Johnson, speaking in the same Commons debate, branded ‘weak’ Mr Putin as a ‘problem gambler’ taking greater risks because he is ‘terrified of losing.
The former premier highlighted how the price of one-way plane tickets from Moscow to South Africa rocketed yesterday because potential Russian conscripts ‘have no desire to be sacrificed on the altar of his (Mr Putin’s) ego’.
Soldiers from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine queue up to vote in the referendum on becoming part of Russia
A bust of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin watches over soldiers in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic as they vote on becoming part of Russia
Soldiers of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, a Russian-backed pseudo-state, vote in the referendum which will take place until next week