By Oyintari Ben
Voting for a referendum that Russia is expected to use to justify the annexation of four territories started on Friday in a region of Ukraine that is under Russian control, with one Ukrainian official reportedly stating that voting was required.
“Voting has begun in the referendum on the territory of Zaporizhzhia joining Russia as a member of the Russian Federation! We’re returning home! Good luck pals!” said Vladimir Rogov, a representative of the regional government there that receives support from Russia.
The West has generally denounced the referendums as being invalid and a prelude to unlawful annexation.
The head of one company in the Russian-controlled town of Bilovodsk reportedly told staff members that the referendum was required and that anyone who chose not to participate would be fired and their identities would be given to the security service, according to Serhiy Gaidai, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region.
He claimed that until Tuesday, residents of the town of Starobilsk were not allowed to leave the city, and that armed forces had been sent to conduct home searches and force them to leave so they could participate in the vote.
Voting is scheduled to take place from Friday to Tuesday in the four provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, which make up around 15% of Ukrainian territory.
The ballots come seven months after Russia invaded and started a war that has killed thousands of people, displaced millions, and affected the world economy. This month, Ukraine recovered vast areas of land in a counteroffensive.
Pro-Moscow authorities had been talking about the referendums for months, but the recent wins of Ukraine forced officials to rush to organize them.
Moscow looks to be attempting to retake the upper hand in the conflict after Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced this week a military conscription to enlist 300,000 people to fight in Ukraine.
Russia claims that it provides a chance for residents in the area to voice their opinions.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “from the very beginning of the operation, we said that the inhabitants of the respective territories should decide their fate, and the entire current scenario demonstrates that they wish to be masters of their fate.”
According to Ukraine, Russia plans to use the referendum results as justification for annexation, just like how it used the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which the international community did not recognize.