The staged votes in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are taking place against a background of violence and repression.
In the first weeks of the Russian invasion, a campaign to “Russify” the areas began in the occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, with a sophisticated propaganda apparatus closely following the traces of the tanks.
Billboards were plastered with placards that read, “Russia is here forever.” Access to some Ukrainian mobile phone networks was cut off. Internet service was routed through Russia. The Ukrainian currency was replaced by the Russian ruble. Teachers were forced to teach a Russian curriculum.
When the oppression got worse, many people fled. According to Ukrainian officials, an estimated 1 to 1.2 million people live in the Russian-occupied territories seized since February 24 – less than half the pre-war population.
The places Russian troops have taken and then left are a testament to the brutality of Russian rule, Ukrainian and Western officials say.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horrors that remain in its wake,” Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken said at the United Nations on Thursday.
While staged votes are being held in four Ukrainian provinces, Russian forces do not control the entire administrative regions. Russian forces in southern Ukraine are dug in, slowing down a Ukrainian offensive around the Black Sea port city of Kherson, but they are struggling elsewhere.
Russia controls less than half of the Zaporizka and Donetsk regions. And in the Luhansk region, where Moscow waged a bloody scorched-earth campaign this summer to reach the administrative border, Russian forces are now on the defensive.
The referenda are designed to give President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a legally questionable justification for declaring parts of Ukraine as Russian. The staged votes recall a 2014 poll in Crimea that was overseen by armed soldiers and quickly followed by Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
The threat of a nuclear conflagration has been a major concern since the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion in February, and the annexation of parts of Ukraine could put them under the protection of Moscow’s nuclear umbrella. Mr Putin warned earlier this week that Russia “will use every means at our disposal” to defend Russian territory.
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