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Ukraine annexation votes end as Russia mobilizes exodus

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© Reuters. A woman says goodbye to a partially deployed reserve soldier, before he departs for a military base, in the city of Bataysk, Rostov region, Russia September 26, 2022. REUTERS / Sergey Pivovarov

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By Tom Balmforth

KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russia-organized referendums that could lead to the annexation of 15% of Ukraine’s territory will end on Tuesday as the Kremlin says it has not made a decision on the shutdown border was the first mobilization since the Second World War that caused some to flee.

Voting in the eastern and southeastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia began on Friday and has been dismissed by Western nations as a sham, which has pledged not to recognize the results. .

In Russia, the call for some 300,000 reservists led to the first prolonged protest since the invasion began, with a monitoring group estimating at least 2,000 people have been arrested so far. Any public criticism of Russia’s “special military operations” is prohibited.

Flights out of Russia have sold out and cars have blocked border checkpoints, with reports of 48-hour queues at the only land border to Georgia, a rare pro-Western neighbour. allows Russian citizens to enter without a visa.

Asked about the prospect of the border being closed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday: “I don’t know anything about this. At the moment, no decision has been made.”

Russia counts millions of former conscripts as full-fledged reservists. Authorities have not yet determined exactly who will be called up, as part of President Vladimir Putin’s order has been classified.

The mobilization has also seen the first sustained criticism of authorities in the state-controlled media since the war began.

But Sergei Tsekov, a senior lawmaker representing Russia’s annexed Crimea in the Russian Senate, told RIA news agency: “All people of military age should be banned from going abroad in the current situation. .”

Two exile news sites – Meduza and Novaya Gazeta Europe – both reported that authorities were planning to ban the men from leaving the country, citing unidentified officials.

Moscow has said it wants to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Kyiv and the West describe Russia’s actions as a gratuitous war of aggression.

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Late on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the military situation in Donetsk – one of four regions where voting is taking place – as difficult.

“The situation … is particularly dire,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to contain enemy activity. This is our number one goal right now because Donbas is still the number one target of the occupiers,” referring to the much larger area. including Donetsk and Luhansk.

Last week, in what appeared to be orchestrated requests, Russian-backed officials there and in other regions the size of Portugal lined up to demand a referendum on joining Russia.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, recognized by Putin as independent shortly before the invasion, and Russian-installed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions asked for a vote.

Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would defend any territories it annexed by using any weapon in its arsenal.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday said the US would respond “definitively” to any use of nuclear weapons by Russia and has told Moscow “exactly that”. what does it mean”.

Asked about Sullivan’s comments, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said on Monday: “There are channels of dialogue at the appropriate level, but they are very sporadic in nature. At least they allow for a one-to-one exchange. urgent messages about each other’s positions.”

Moves to annex parts of Ukraine could happen quickly.

TASS news agency last week quoted an unnamed Duma source as saying the meeting room could debate a bill on the consolidation of parts of Ukraine on Thursday, while RIA Novosti previously said Putin has may prepare to give a formal speech to an extraordinary joint session of both. home on Friday.

None of the provinces mentioned are fully under Moscow’s control and skirmishes have been fought along the entire front, with Ukrainian forces reporting more progress since their arrival. sent Russian troops to the fifth province, Kharkiv, earlier this month.

The exiled mayor of Russian-controlled Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region accused Russia of forcibly recruiting Ukrainian men from the occupied regions into its armed forces and denounced the referendum as “sham”. and is a farce.”

Ukraine’s Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian-backed officials were carrying ballot boxes door-to-door, accompanied by security officials, and that people’s names would be taken down if they did not vote as requested.

Even Russia’s traditional allies such as Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognize the annexation votes.

Moscow says voting is voluntary and turnout is high. When they held a referendum in Crimea after occupying that peninsula in 2014, they claimed 97% of the people voted for annexation.

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