Russian forces launched new strikes on Ukrainian cities on Saturday as Kremlin-orchestrated votes took place in four occupied regions to create a pretext for their annexation by Moscow.
In cities across Russia, police arrested hundreds of people who tried to protest a partial mobilisation order aimed at beefing up the country’s troops in Ukraine.
Other Russians reported for duty, while the foreign minister told the UN General Assembly his country had “no choice” but to take military action against its neighbour.
Ukraine’s presidential office said the latest Russian shelling killed at least three people and wounded 19.
Oleksandr Starukh, the Ukrainian governor of Zaporizhzhia, one of the regions where Moscow-installed officials organised referendums on joining Russia, said a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the regional capital, killing one person and injuring seven others.
Ukraine and its Western allies say the referendums underway in the occupied parts of its southern and eastern regions have no legal force.
They alleged the votes were an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to seize Ukrainian territory stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the voting “looked more like an opinion survey under the gun barrels,” adding that Moscow-backed local authorities sent armed escorts to accompany election officials and to take down the names of individuals who voted against joining Russia.
“Half of the population fled the Donetsk region because of Russian terror and constant shelling, voting against Russia with their feet, and the second half has been cheated and scared,” Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting “this farce”.
He also called on Russian recruits to sabotage and desert the military if they are called up under the partial troop mobilization President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday.
In Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Moscow-installed authorities are going door-to-door to collect votes for the so-called “referendum” to join Russia in a move aimed at legitimising the Kremlin’s imminent annexation of Ukrainian territories.
“Voting” in the Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” will continue until Tuesday, 27 September.
“The conditions of those referendums have been published and following those referendums […] Russia, of course, will respect the expression of the will of those people who for many long years have been suffering from the abuses of the neo-Nazi regime,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
On the Ukrainian side, in cities like Kramatorsk, residents are looking on with dismay at the Moscow-organised vote.
“What can I say about the referendum? It’s obviously unlawful, that’s our land, Ukrainian land, and all the things they are doing there, I don’t know, I think they just have nothing to do. In our land? We are Ukrainians”, said one Kramatorsk resident.
In the Ukrainian capital, about 100 people from the Russia-occupied city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donetsk region, gathered to protest the referendum, covering themselves in Ukrainian flags and carrying posters “Mariupol is Ukraine.”
“They ruined the city, killed thousands of people, and now they are doing some kind of profanation over there,” said Vladyslav Kildishov, who helped organise the rally.
Elina Sytkova, 21, a demonstrator who has many relatives left in Mariupol even though the city spent months under bombardment, said the vote was “an illusion of choice when there isn’t any.”
It’s “like a joke, because it’s the same as it was in Crimea, meaning it’s fake and not real,” she said, referring to a 2014 referendum that took place in Russian-occupied Crimea before Moscow annexed the peninsula in a move that most of the world considers illegal.