Kremlin proxies in Ukraine double down ahead of annexation votes
Kremlin-installed officials in Ukrainian regions controlled by Moscow's forces vowed on Thursday to press ahead with polls this week on annexation by Russia, after world leaders condemned the votes and said the results would be void.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was expected to defend what Ukraine's allies are calling an unlawful land grab, during a U.N. Security Council meeting called by France over rights abuses in Ukraine.
Four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine -- Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south -- announced that they would hold the votes over five days, beginning on Friday.
Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-installed head of Kherson, which fell early into the Russian invasion, said the referendum would go ahead in his region regardless of the criticism.
"The date has been set. We have the green light. Voting begins tomorrow and nothing can prevent this," he told Russian state-run media.
"People have been waiting and they're demanding that this vote is held soon," he added.
Western leaders convening in New York this week unanimously condemned the ballots.
Speaking at the United Nations, U.S. President Joe Biden accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "shamelessly" violating the U.N. Charter with a war aimed at "extinguishing Ukraine's right to exist as a state."
- Door-to-door voting -
The integration of the war-scarred regions into Russia would represent a major escalation of the conflict, as Moscow could then try to say it was defending its own territory from Ukrainian forces.
After the votes were announced by his proxy officials in Ukraine, Putin announced that Russia would call up some 300,000 reservists to bolster the war effort and cautioned that Moscow would use "all means" to protect its territory.
Former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement on social media that those means included "strategic nuclear weapons". He predicted the voting regions "will integrate into Russia."
For most observers, the results of the concurrent votes are already a foregone conclusion and were rushed because Ukrainian forces were making sweeping gains in a counter-offensive to recapture the east.
The referendums are reminiscent of a similar ballot in 2014 that saw the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine annexed by Russia. Western capitals said the vote was fraudulent and hit Moscow with sanctions in response.
Election officials in the Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled since 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists, said that voting would take place door-to-door for the first days. But it would only be possible in polling stations on the final day, Tuesday.
Putin's move this week to call up reservists for Ukraine sparked small protests across Russia, resulting in more than 1,300 people being detained.
- 'This senseless war' -
Flights out of Russia to neighboring countries, mainly former Soviet republics that allow Russians visa-free entry, are nearly entirely booked and prices have skyrocketed, pointing to an exodus of Russian wanting to avoid going to war.
Looking lost and exhausted in the arrivals hall of the airport in the capital of Armenia, 44-year-old Sergei said he had fled Russia to escape being called up.
"The situation in Russia would make anyone want to leave," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Dmitry, 45, said he flew to Armenia from one of Russia's eastern regions with one small bag, leaving behind his wife and two children and with "no clue what I'll be doing here".
"I don't want to go to war. I don't want to die in this senseless war," he told AFP journalists.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday denied that Russians eligible to fight were flooding airports and lining up at the country's borders.
"A great deal of false information has emerged about this," he said.
The Russian defense ministry confirmed on Wednesday it had secured the release of 55 of its servicemen, in the largest prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow since the start of the conflict.
In exchange, Ukraine recovered 215 imprisoned citizens, including servicemen who held out against Russian forces besieging the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol.
As part of the deal, Ukraine also handed over to Russia Viktor Medvedchuk, seen as President Vladimir Putin's top ally in Kyiv.
Medvedchuk, one of Ukraine's richest people, has been accused by Kyiv of high treason.