US President Joe Biden has said Russian referendums aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine are a sham and that Washington “will never recognise Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine”.
- Mr Biden warned of “additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia” if they annex part of Ukraine
- Authorities in the Russian-controlled regions were going door-to-door to collect votes
- UN investigators said war crimes had been committed in the Ukraine conflict
The voting on whether Russia should annex these parts of Ukraine into its own territory opened on Friday, dramatically raising the stakes of Moscow’s seven-month invasion.
The votes in the four regions are the latest shock development in a ferocious war that UN investigators said had seen violence — like executions and torture — that amounted to war crimes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the referendums as a “farce”, while Kyiv’s allies likewise condemned the vote at the UN General Assembly as an illegitimate precursor to illegal annexation.
In a statement, Mr Biden said if the region is annexed by Russia, Washington “will work with our allies and partners to impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia”.
The White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the referendum a breach of the United Nations charter.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Russia’s attack on Ukraine was “an attack on all smaller countries”.
“It is an assertion that a larger country is entitled to subjugate a smaller country. To decide whether another country can even exist,” Ms Wong said.
“It was never intended that the security council veto power would be used to enable uncheck abuse of the UN charter.”
Even China, Russia’s closest ally since the war began, has acknowledged that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected”.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the comments to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba at the UN.
On Friday, authorities in the Russian-controlled regions began going door-to-door to collect votes, according to state media.
“In-person voting will take place exclusively on September 27,” TASS media reported.
“On the other days, voting will be organised in communities and in a door-to-door manner for security reasons.”
It was also possible to vote at the building in Moscow that represents the Donetsk breakaway region.
There are no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.
One local resident in Enerhodar told the BBC: “You have to answer verbally and the soldier marks the answer on the sheet and keeps it.”
Others described armed soldiers visiting their homes as asking the household to sign a single ballot with their vote.
Ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia asked the question: “Are you in favour of secession from Ukraine, formation of an independent state by the region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
Leonid, a 59-year-old military official, told AFP he was “feeling happy”.
“Ultimately, things are moving towards the restoration of the Soviet Union. The referendum is one step towards this,” he said.
“Donbas is Russia” said a post on Telegram by Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian separatist leader in Donetsk — part of the industrial Donbas region.
But earlier this month, a Ukrainian counter-offensive seized back most of the north-eastern Kharkiv region, bringing hundreds of settlements back under Kyiv’s control after months of Russian occupation.
On Friday, Kyiv said its forces had made more progress, recapturing a village in the Donetsk region and retaking positions south of the war-scarred town of Bakhmut.
The four regions’ integration into Russia would represent a major escalation of the conflict as Moscow would consider any military move there as an attack on its own territory.
The referendums are reminiscent of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and the referendum there, denounced by Western nations, who imposed sanctions on Moscow as a result.
Evidence of ‘war crimes’
UN investigators said Friday that war crimes had been committed in the Ukraine conflict, listing Russian bombings of civilian areas, as well as executions, torture and horrific sexual violence.
In Russian detention facilities, investigators said they found evidence of beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity.
Erik Mose, who has led a team of investigators set up in March, said they were “struck by the large number of executions”.
In the eastern Kharkiv region, Ukrainian officials said Friday that they had completed their exhumation of 447 bodies from a mass burial site near the city of Izyum.
“Most of them have signs of violent death, and 30 have signs of torture,” said Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov in a post on social media.
“There are bodies with rope around their necks, with their hands tied, with broken limbs and gunshot wounds.”
Izyum was part of the territory recently recaptured from Russian forces.
The Kremlin has denied its forces carried out any large-scale killings in eastern Ukraine, accusing Kyiv of fabricating evidence.