Russian forces launched new strikes on Ukrainian cities as Kremlin-orchestrated votes took place in occupied regions of Ukraine to create a pretext for their annexation by Moscow.
Ukraine’s presidential office said the latest Russian shelling killed at least three people and wounded 19. Oleksandr Starukh, the Ukrainian governor of Zaporizhzhia, one of the regions where Moscow-installed officials organized referendums on joining Russia, said a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the city of Zaporizhzhia, killing one person and injuring seven others.
In the five-day voting in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south that began Friday, election officials accompanied by police officers carried ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations, citing safety reasons. The votes are set to wrap up Tuesday, when balloting will be held at polling stations.
Ukraine and its Western allies say the referendums have no legal force. They alleged the votes were an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to slice away a large part of Ukraine, stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world considered illegal.
“Half of the population fled the Donetsk region because of Russian terror and constant shelling, voting against Russia with their feet, and the second half has been cheated and scared,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting “this farce.” He also called on people to try to avoid the partial troop mobilization Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday or to sabotage and desert the Russian military if they ended up in the ranks.
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“If you get into the Russian army, sabotage any activity of the enemy, hinder any Russian operations, provide us with any important information about the occupiers – their bases, headquarters, warehouses with ammunition,” Zelenskyy said.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the voting “looked more like an opinion survey under the gun barrels,” adding that the Moscow-backed local authorities were sending armed escorts to accompany election officials and to note the names of individuals who voted against joining Russia.
In the Ukrainian capital, about 100 people from the Russia-occupied city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donetsk region, gathered to protest the referendum, covering themselves in Ukrainian flags and carrying posters “Mariupol is Ukraine.”
“They ruined the city, killed thousands of people, and now they are doing some kind of profanation over there,” said Vladyslav Kildishov who helped organize the rally.
Elina Sytkova, 21, a demonstrator who has many relatives left in Mariupol even though the city spent months under bombardment, said the vote was “like a joke, because it’s the same as it was in Crimea, meaning it’s fake and not real.” “It’s an illusion of choice when there isn’t any,” she added.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the partial mobilization ordered by Putin aimed to add about 300,000 troops, but the presidential decree keeps the door open for a broader call-up.
Across Russa’s 11 time zones, men hugged their weeping family members before being rounded up for service amid fears that a wider call-up might follow. Some media reports claimed that the Russian authorities actually plan to mobilize more than 1 million, the allegations denied by the Kremlin.
Police moved quickly to disperse more demonstrations against the mobilization that were held in several cities across Russia on Saturday and detained more than 100 participants. Over 1,300 protesters were arrested during antiwar demonstrations on Wednesday, and many of them immediately received call-up summons.
Many Russian men tried desperately to leave the country, buying up scarce and exorbitantly priced plane tickets. Thousands others fled by car, creating lines of traffic hours or even days long at some borders.
The mobilization marked a sharp shift from Putin’s effort to cast the seven-month war as a “special military operation” that doesn’t interfere with the lives of most Russians. The massive exodus underlined the unpopularity of the war and fueled public outrage that could erode his grip on power.
Moving to assuage public fears over the call-up, the authorities announced that many of those working in high tech, communications or finance will be exempt.
And in a signal that the Kremlin was getting worried about the spreading panic and chaos caused by the mobilization, the head of a top state-controlled TV station harshly criticized military authorities for hastily sweeping up random people to meet mobilization targets instead of calling up people with military skills who had served recently, as Putin promised.
RT chief Margarita Simonyan lashed out at military conscription offices for “driving people mad” by rounding up those who weren’t supposed to be drafted. “It’s as if they were tasked by Kyiv to do that,” she said.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya who sent his forces to fight in Ukraine and repeatedly called for tougher action, suggested that Moscow should more broadly engage personnel from law enforcement agencies in the fighting.
He denounced those fleeing the mobilization as cowards and argued that police and various paramilitary agencies that number a total of 5 million together with the military would make a much better-trained and motivated fighting force.
“If we leave 50 percent of the personnel to fulfill their duties, 2.5 million others will blow any Western army away and we won’t need any reservists,” Kadyrov said.
Putin’s mobilization order followed a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive that forced Moscow’s retreat from broad swaths of the northeastern Kharkiv region, a humiliating defeat that highlighted blunders in Moscow’s military planning.
The Defense Ministry on Saturday announced the dismissal of Gen. Dmitry Bulgakov from the post of deputy defense minister in charge of logistics. It didn’t mention the cause for his ouster, but the move was widely seen as a punishment for the flaws in supporting operations in Ukraine.