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 muster more troops to bolster his faltering invasion of its smaller neighbor.
The vote in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson 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 to join Russia earlier this week.
Tass state news agency 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. Tass said polling stations were also set up inside Russia for residents who had evacuated there.
The questions on the ballots will ask voters whether their regions should join Russia, the news agency said. Tass did not mention the option of remaining part of Ukraine.
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.
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.
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 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 to circulate on Russian social media showing goodbye tears as men were told to report to work. NBC News was able to verify a video showing crying women and children hugging men boarding buses at what appears to be a mobilization point in Russia’s far eastern Sakha region.
While Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tried to reassure the Russian public that only a limited pool of people with military experience and specialists would be recruited, many took to social media with concerns about whether the government would hold true. at his word.
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 Some 10,000 volunteers have already turned up on Thursday 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.