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  23 Sep 2022, 11:33

Russia holds breakaway polls in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine, Sept 23, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - Moscow-held regions of Ukraine
begin 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 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's Western allies.

They come after Putin announced this week a mandatory troop call-up for about
300,000 reservists, which also sparked resounding condemnation in the West.

The mobilisation comes after Ukrainian forces seized back most of the
northeastern Kharkiv region in a huge counter-offensive that has seen Kyiv
retaking hundreds of towns and villages under Russian control for months.

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

"We cannot -- we will not -- allow President Putin to get away with it," US
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a UN Security Council session on
Thursday, lashing out against the referendums as a "sham".

"The very international order we've gathered here to uphold is being shredded
before our eyes... (Defending Ukraine's sovereignty) is about protecting an
international order where no nation can redraw the borders of another by
force," he said.

The referendums are reminiscent of a similar sort in 2014 that saw the
Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine annexed by Russia.

Western capitals have maintained that the vote was fraudulent and hit Moscow
with sanctions in response.

In New York this week, Western leaders have unanimously condemned the ballots
and the troop call-up, with French President Macron telling the UN General
Assembly that the referendums were a "travesty".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at the accusations,
condemning Ukraine for driving "Russophobia".

"There's an attempt today to impose on us a completely different narrative
about Russian aggression as the origin of this tragedy," Lavrov told the
Security Council.

- 'A farce' -

In the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions -- already recognised as
independent by Putin right before he launched the invasion in February --
residents will have to answer if they support their "republic's entry into
Russia", according to Russian news agency TASS.

Ballots in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions will have this question: "Are you
in favour 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?"

And the voting process in the four regions would be untraditional, TASS said.

"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".

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the referendums as a
"farce", and hailed Western allies for their condemnation of Russia's moves.

"I am grateful to everyone in the world who supported us, who clearly
condemned another Russian lie," he said during his daily address on Thursday.

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".

- Russians fleeing -

Moscow on Thursday began its mandatory troop call-up, after Putin's call for
about 300,000 reservists to bolster the war effort.

Amateur footage posted on social media purported to show hundreds of Russian
citizens across the country responding to the military summons, and the
Russian military said that at least 10,000 people had volunteered to fight in
24 hours since the order.

But men were also leaving Russia in droves before they were made to join, and
across Russia on Wednesday, more than 1,300 people were arrested during
protests, a monitoring group reported.

Flights to neighbouring countries, mainly former Soviet republics that allow
Russians visa-free entry, are nearly entirely booked and prices have
skyrocketed, pointing to an exodus of Russians wanting to avoid going to war.

"I don't want to go to the war," a man named Dmitri, who had flown to Armenia
with just one small bag, told AFP.

"I don't want to die in this senseless war. This is a fratricidal war."

Military-aged men made up the majority of those arriving off the latest
flight from Moscow at Yerevan airport and many were reluctant to speak.

The Armenian capital has become a major destination for Russians fleeing
since war began on February 24, drawing fierce international opposition that
has aimed to isolate Russia.

Looking lost and exhausted in Yerevan airport's arrivals hall, 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.

Calling on Russians to resist the mobilisation, Zelensky urged them to
protest, fight back "or surrender" to the Ukrainian army.

"You are already complicit in all these crimes, murders and torture of
Ukrainians. Because you were silent," he said.

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