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Kremlin announces vote, paves way to annex part of Ukraine

by The Associated Press | September 28, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, comments results of a referendum in Luhansk, Luhansk People's Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. Voting began Friday in four Moscow-held regions of Ukraine on referendums to become part of Russia. (AP Photo)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- The Kremlin paved the way Tuesday to annex more of Ukraine and escalate the war by claiming residents of a large swath overwhelmingly supported joining with Russia in stage-managed referendums the U.S. and its Western allies have dismissed as illegitimate.

Pro-Moscow officials said all four occupied regions of Ukraine voted to join Russia. According to Russia-installed election officials, 93 percent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87 percent in the Kherson region, 98 percent in the Luhansk region and 99 percent in Donetsk.

Possibly explaining the lower favorable vote in Kherson is Russian authorities there have faced a strong Ukrainian underground resistance movement whose members have killed Moscow-appointed officials and threatened those who considered voting.

In a remark that appeared to rule out negotiations, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy told the U.N. Security Council by video from Kyiv that Russia's attempts to annex Ukrainian territory will mean "there is nothing to talk about with this president of Russia."

He added "any annexation in the modern world is a crime, a crime against all states that consider the inviolability of border to be vital for themselves."

The preordained outcome sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in Russia's seven-month war, with the Kremlin threatening to throw more troops into the battle and potentially use nuclear weapons.

The referendums asking residents whether they wanted the four occupied southern and eastern Ukraine regions to be incorporated into Russia began Sept. 23, often with armed officials going door-to-door collecting votes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address Russia's parliament about the referendums on Friday, and Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the body's upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, Russia ramped up warnings it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired land, and continued mobilizing more than a quarter-million additional troops to deploy to a front line of more than 620 miles.

After the balloting, "the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, and the U.N. Security Council met Tuesday in New York to discuss a resolution that says the voting results will never be accepted and that the four regions remain part of Ukraine. Russia is certain to veto the resolution.

The balloting and a call-up of Russian military reservists that Putin ordered last Wednesday are aimed at buttressing Moscow's exposed military and political positions.

The referendums follow a familiar Kremlin playbook for territorial expansion and more aggressive military action. In 2014, Russian authorities held a similar referendum on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, under the close watch of Russian troops. Based on the voting, Russia annexed Crimea. Putin cited the defense of Russians living in Ukraine's eastern regions, their supposed desires to join with Russia, and an existential security threat to Russia as a pretext for his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Putin has been talking up Moscow's nuclear option since Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that reclaimed territory and has increasingly cornered his forces. A top Putin aide ratcheted up the nuclear rhetoric Tuesday.

"Let's imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state," Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council that Putin chairs, wrote on his messaging app channel. "I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict."

The United States has dismissed the Kremlin's nuclear talk as a scare tactic.

The referendums asked residents whether they want the areas to be incorporated into Russia, and the Kremlin has portrayed them as free and fair, reflective of the people's desire for self-determination.

Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions because of the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians seized it after a months-long siege, said only about 20 percent of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum. Mariupol's pre-war population was 541,000.

"A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?" Boychenko asked during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting.

Western allies sided firmly with Ukraine, dismissing the referendum votes as a meaningless sham.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the ballots were "a desperate move" by Putin. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said while visiting Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined "to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity" and described the ballots as "mock referendums."

  photo  People transport fuel on a boat in front of a destroyed bridge across the Siverskyi-Donets river in Staryi-Saltiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
 
 
  photo  This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows people and vehicles queuing for crossing the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgia border, on Tuesday Sept. 27, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)
 
 
  photo  This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows people and vehicles queuing for crossing the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgia border, on Tuesday Sept. 27, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)
 
 
  photo  Anton Krasyvyi helps passengers disembark after crossing the Siverskyi-Donets river in front of a destroyed bridge so they can visit relatives in Staryi-Saltiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
 
 
  photo  People ride on a boat across the Siverskyi-Donets river in front of a destroyed bridge in Staryi-Saltiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
 
 
  photo  People transport fuel on a boat in front of a destroyed bridge across the Siverskyi-Donets river in Staryi-Saltiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
 
 
  photo  Men on a boat transport humanitarian aid across the Siverskyi-Donets river in front of a destroyed bridge in Staryi-Saltiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
 
 
  photo  Men on a boat transport humanitarian aid across the Siverskyi-Donets river in front of a destroyed bridge in Staryi-Saltiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
 
 
  photo  Valentina Bondarenko reacts as she stands with her husband Leonid outside their house that was heavily damaged after a Russian attack in Sloviansk, Ukraine, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. The 78-year-old woman was in the garden and fell on the ground at the moment of the explosion. "Everything flew and I started to run away", says Valentina. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
 
 

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