- Russia says the majority voted for annexation
- “Welcome home, in Russia!” Medvedev says
- Russia’s parliament says it may consider annexation on October 4
- The United States plans a UN resolution to reject any change in Ukraine
- Russian undersea gas pipelines mysteriously damaged
LONDON/ZAPORECHA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Officials have installed Russia in four occupied regions of Ukraine with a large majority in favor of joining Russia, as the United States plans to pass a United Nations resolution condemning the referendums as a disgrace and Moscow remains defiant.
Europe is investigating what Germany, Sweden and Denmark said on Tuesday were attacks that caused major leaks from two Russian energy pipelines. But it is not yet clear who may be behind the leaks.
Quickly arranged votes took place over five days in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and in Zaporizhzhya and Kherson in the south which together make up about 15% of Ukrainian territory.
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Vote numbers from Tuesday’s full results in the four provinces ranged from 87% to 99.2% in favor of joining Russia, according to Russia-designated officials. The head of Russia’s upper house of parliament said the chamber may consider annexation on October 4.
“The results are clear. Welcome home, in Russia!” Dmitry Medvedev, a former deputy head of the Russian Security Council and an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said on Telegram.
Inside the occupied territories, Russian-installed officials have taken ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West have described as an illegal and coercive exercise to create a legal pretext to annex Russia’s four regions.
“This farce in the occupied territories cannot even be described as an imitation of a referendum,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address on Tuesday.
US envoy Linda Thomas Greenfield said the United States will introduce a resolution at the UN Security Council calling on member states not to recognize any change in Ukraine and to compel Russia to withdraw its forces.
“The fake referendums in Russia, if accepted, will open a pandora’s box that we cannot close,” she said at a council meeting.
Russia has a veto of a Security Council resolution, but Thomas Greenfield said that would prompt Washington to take the issue to the UN General Assembly.
Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, James Kariuki, said: “Any referendums held under these conditions, under the barrel of a gun, cannot be close to being free or just.”
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, told the meeting that the referendums were conducted transparently while adhering to electoral criteria.
“This process will continue if Kyiv does not realize its mistakes and strategic mistakes, does not begin to be guided by the interests of its own people, and does not implement the will of those people who are blindly playing with it.” He said.
If Russia annexes the four Ukrainian regions, Putin could portray any Ukrainian attempt to regain control of them as an attack on Russia itself. Last week he said he was ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity,” and Medvedev issued a new nuclear warning on Tuesday to Ukraine and the West.
But Zelensky’s adviser, Mikhailo Podolak, told Reuters that Kyiv would not be affected by nuclear threats or the sounds of annexation and would continue its plans to reclaim all the territories occupied by the invading Russian forces.
Diplomats say the rattling of nuclear swords is an attempt by Moscow to intimidate the West into scaling back its support for Kiev.
For the first time, Medvedev predicted that the military NATO would not enter Ukraine’s war directly, even if Moscow hit Ukraine with nuclear weapons.
Putin said on state television that the vote was aimed at protecting people from what he described as Ukraine’s persecution of Russians and Russian speakers, something Kyiv denies.
“Rescuing people in all the regions where this referendum is being held … is the focus of our society and our country as a whole,” Putin said.
He earlier discussed with officials mobilizing farmers to fight in Ukraine, the latest step in a campaign he announced last week to support what Moscow calls its “special military operation” after setbacks on the battlefield this month.
The mobilization campaign prompted thousands of Russians to cross the Russian border into neighboring countries.
Podolak said Ukrainians who helped Russia organize the annexation referendum would face charges of treason and at least five years in prison. Ukrainians who were forced to vote will not be punished.
Donetsk is the top priority
None of the four regions are entirely under Moscow’s control, and there has been fighting along the entire front line, with Ukrainian forces reporting further advances since they defeated Russian forces in a fifth province, Kharkiv, earlier this month.
Zelensky said the Donetsk region in the east remained a top strategic priority for his country – and Russia – with “particularly intense” fighting sweeping through many towns.
The Ukrainian Army’s General Staff said late on Tuesday that Russian bombing had hit seven towns in Donetsk, including Bakhmut, Soledar and Avdiivka.
The military said 20 towns in the Zaporizhzhya region in south-central Ukraine and 35 towns and villages in the Kherson region in the south were bombed.
Leonid Bashnik, a separatist leader in Luhansk, said on Telegram that three municipal gas workers were killed and another wounded in Ukrainian shelling in Bryanka.
“Their goal is to kill as many civilians as possible…and destroy infrastructure in cities. The missiles provided by NATO countries are killing children, women, the elderly and unarmed municipal utility workers,” he said.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the battlefield reports.
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Reporting by Reuters offices. Writing by Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Grant McCall and Michael Perry
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.