Ukrainians terrified by prearranged Russian referendum

Kyiv, UKRAINE (AP) — After seven months of war, many Ukrainians fear further suffering and political repression. Referendum orchestrated by the Kremlin With the help of gun-toting police, it portends the imminent annexation of the four occupied territories by Russia.

Many residents fled the area before the referendum began, fearing they would be forced to vote or be forced to vote. conscripted into the Russian army.

Petro Kobelnik, who left the Russian-ruled southern city of Kherson just before the scheduled votes began on Friday, said the prospect of living under Russian law and raging war He and others got very nervous about the future.

“The situation is changing rapidly and people fear that they will be hurt by the Russian army or by Ukrainian guerrillas and advancing Ukrainian forces,” Kovanik, 31, said in a telephone interview.

When some Russian officials, accompanied by armed police, brought ballots to the neighborhood, Kobelnik said his 70-year-old father had left his private residence in the village of Novotroitské, part of Kherson. He said he had sworn to close the door and not let anyone in.

Referendums, which Kyiv and its Western allies have accused of fraud, are being held in the Russian-controlled Luhansk and Kherson regions, as well as in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions. They are widely seen as a pretext for annexation, and Russian officials plan to announce the area as theirs after the vote ends on Tuesday.

The Kremlin has used this tactic before. In 2014, Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula held a hasty referendum to justify its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Ukrainian authorities advised residents of four Russian-occupied territories to leave, telling them they would face criminal penalties if they voted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin started mobilizing more troops for the war last weekhe said he was ready to use nuclear weapons to protect the territory.

Putin’s escalating rhetoric The politically risky decision to call up as many as 300,000 army reservists was taken after the Russians were forced to hastily withdraw from large areas of northeastern Ukraine earlier this month. A fierce Ukrainian counterattack continues in the east and south of the country.

The Moscow-appointed governor of the South Kherson region, Vladimir Sard, vowed that Ukraine’s attempt to derail the referendum by shelling the city would not succeed.

“It’s complicated by security issues, but we will do everything we can to ensure that voters and electoral officials can vote safely,” Sardo said in a video address. “People are waiting for Russia’s accession and want it to happen as soon as possible.”

Separatists in the Russian-backed eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions claim that since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, most residents of these regions have dreamed of joining Russia.

But many residents there tell a different story.

“The streets are empty because people are at home,” Marina Ilko, 38, from the port city of Berdyansk on the Sea of ​​Azov, said by phone. She said, “No one wants us to declare ourselves part of Russia and round up our men.”

“People who actively supported Ukraine left or hid,” she said, adding that many older people who supported Russia remained but were terrified.

Ukrainian guerrillas continue to target Moscow-appointed officials in the occupied territories.

Just a week before the referendum, the deputy chief executive of the city of Berdyansk and his wife, who headed the city’s electoral commission, were killed in the attack.

Members of the guerrilla organization “Yellow Band”, named after Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag, distributed leaflets intimidating voters and asked residents to send pictures and videos of voters to be tracked later. urged.

The guerrillas also posted the phone number of the Electoral Commission of the Kherson region and called on pro-Ukrainian activists to “make their lives intolerable.”

Ukrainian officials say signs of the illegality of the referendum are everywhere.

“Russians are forced to accept the people, seeing the fear and reluctance of the citizens to vote,” said Ivan Fedorov, the Ukrainian mayor of the Russian-controlled city of Melitopol. City.

“Russians accompanied by groups of collaborators and militants go from one apartment to another, but few open the door,” said Fedorov. “Their haste to organize that pseudo-referendum shows that they didn’t even try to count the votes seriously.”

Larisa Vinohradova, a resident of the port city of Mariupol who left the city after the Russian invasion, said many of her friends stayed because she had to look after her aging parents who refused to flee. “They are not supporting Russia, they want and are waiting for Mariupol to become part of Ukraine,” she said through tears.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Hayday, who left the region after it was wiped out by Russian forces, said he feared Russians would recruit more men in the region for military service, following President Putin’s mobilization orders. Residents said they were afraid.

“Russians are using this pseudo-referendum as an excuse for armed people to visit apartments, looking for men left to mobilize them, looking for anything suspicious or pro-Ukrainian. ‘” Haidai told the Associated Press.

“Ukraine’s swift counterattack terrified the Russians,” he added.

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

“The haste of the referendum shows the Kremlin’s weakness, not its strength,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based independent think tank Penta Center. “The Kremlin is struggling to find ways to influence a situation that has spiraled out of control.”


Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.


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