As four occupied regions of Ukraine began holding controversial referendums on whether to join Russia on Friday, Russian men continued to flee the country as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s plans to recruit more troops to bolster his faltering invasion of its smaller neighbor.
The vote in the occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine has already been condemned as a farce by Kyiv and its Western allies, including the United States.
Friday was the first day of a five-day voting period in the regions after Russian-based officials rushed to announce referendums earlier this week.
Russian state news agency Tass reported that for “security reasons,” election officials would deliver ballots to people’s homes. Voting at the actual polling stations would only take place on the last day. He said that polling stations have also been set up inside Russia for Ukrainian residents who had evacuated there.
The questions on the ballots will ask voters whether their regions should join Russia, the news agency said, adding that the option of remaining as part of Ukraine was not mentioned.
The vote will conclude on Tuesday, but the result is almost certain to favor Moscow. The United States and its Western allies have said Russia is likely to manipulate the results and use them as a pretext to annex sovereign territory from Ukraine.
Moscow-backed officials in the occupied areas held the elections. Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader in Donetsk, called the referendum “a historic milestone” in a video recording on Friday, adding: “We’re coming home.”
The rush to hold referendums is widely seen as Putin’s attempt to maintain control of occupied regions amid battlefield successes in Ukraine and a lightning counteroffensive in the northeast earlier this month.
If the regions vote to join Russia, Moscow is likely to claim them as part of its territory. Putin warned this week that he could resort to the use of nuclear weapons should Russia’s territorial integrity be threatened, which could mean any Ukrainian effort to retake annexed regions could precipitate a nuclear confrontation.
As the vote began on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow would regard any attempt by Ukraine to return the regions holding referendums as an attack on Russia, if they vote to join the country, Tass. aforementioned he as saying.
Meanwhile, Russian media reported congested airports as flights to neighboring countries sold out. after Putin’s partial mobilization order to reinforce his troops in Ukraine. With few details laid out in the order, the men of fighting age were left with more questions than answers about who exactly might be drafted to serve in Ukraine.
Long lines were forming at Russia’s land borders with neighboring Finland, Reuters reported, citing Finnish officials. Finnish land border crossings are among the few entry points into Europe for Russians after many Western countries banned their entry following the February 24 invasion. On the contrary, the German Minister of the Interior said Thursday that the country could consider taking in Russians fleeing conscription.
“Putin’s contempt for humanity does not stop with his own soldiers, whom he is sending into this murderous war against the Ukrainian civilian population,” Nancy Faeser. tweeted. “Deserters threatened by severe repression therefore often receive international protection in Germany.”
After the mobilization was announced on Wednesday, videos began circulating on Russian social media showing tears of parting as men were told to report for duty. NBC News was able to verify a video showing women and children crying as they hugged men boarding buses at what appeared to be a mobilization point in Russia’s far eastern Sakha region.
Another video verified by NBC News showed what appears to be a military recruiter arguing with a dozen men about the mobilization effort in the Babayurtovsky district of the Dagestan republic in Russia’s North Caucasus.
Some men in the crowd can be heard saying they are unwilling to fight a war that is about “politics.”
While Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tried to reassure the Russian public that only a limited group of people with military experience and specialists would be recruited into the mobilization, many took to social media with concerns that the government might He would stay true to his word. Many messages used the word “mogilization”, an amalgamation of the Russian word “mogila”, which means “grave”.
On Friday, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called the mobilization “criminal.”
Some lawyers shared detailed guides online on how to avoid mobilization and what to do if someone is called up but doesn’t want to serve.
The Kremlin dismissed reports of Russian men fleeing the mobilization as “exaggerated,” and the Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday that some 10,000 volunteers have already applied to enlist without waiting to be called. Putin’s order seeks to recruit an additional 300,000 troops.
The order comes as his military campaign in Ukraine is in trouble. Many foreign leaders have denounced it as an act of desperation as their troops have been demoralized and depleted by humiliating setbacks and logistical challenges. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday it was a sign that the war, which seemed far away before, has now “entered every Russian home”.
Reuters, Carlo Angerer other matthew mulligan contributed.