Russia holds breakaway polls in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — Moscow-held regions of Ukraine began voting Friday on whether to become part of Russia, in referendums that Kyiv and its allies have condemned as an unlawful land grab.

The referendums are reminiscent of one in 2014 that saw Ukraine’s Crimea annexed by Russia.

The referendums in eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have been roundly dismissed as a sham by Kyiv and its Western allies.

In the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions —already recognized as independent by Russian President Vladimir Putin right before he launched the invasion in February — residents are answering if they support their “republic’s entry into Russia,” according to Russian news agency TASS.

Ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have the question: “Are you in favor 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?”

Russian news agencies reported that the voting process began on Friday at 0500 GMT. Earlier, TASS said the balloting in the four regions would be untraditional.

“Given the short deadlines and the lack of technical equipment, it was decided not to hold electronic voting and use the traditional paper ballots,” it added.

Instead, authorities would go door-to-door for the first four days to collect votes, and then polling stations would be open on the final day, Tuesday, for residents to cast ballots.

Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, told TASS they have been waiting for this referendum since 2014, calling it “our common dream and common future.”

The four regions’ integration into Russia — which for most observers is already a foregone conclusion — would represent a major new escalation of the conflict.

Putin said Moscow would use “all means” to protect its territory — a statement that former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said on social media would mean including “strategic nuclear weapons.”

Medvedev also predicted the voting regions “will integrate into Russia.”

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