(CN) — People living in four Ukrainian regions mostly under the control of Russian troops began voting on Friday in annexation referendums deemed a sham by Western powers and Kyiv.
Russian propaganda and media tried to portray the votes about joining Russia as a jubilant moment for residents in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, four large Ukrainian regions that have mostly fallen under Russian control since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24.
The referendums are meant to pave the way for Moscow to say it has been given the consent of Ukrainians in those regions to annex their territories into the Russian Federation.
By late Friday, the votes appeared to be taking place without major violence or attacks. With few independent journalists in regions under Russian control, it was difficult to ascertain how the votes were being carried out.
In another big development, Ukraine and Russia on Thursday announced a high-profile prisoner swap. Ukraine handed over a chief ally of Putin's, Ukrainian oligarch and politician Viktor Medvedchuk, and about 50 other prisoners in exchange for 215 Ukrainian fighters, among them Azov Regiment commanders and foreign fighters.
It was feared that the Ukrainian fighters would be executed for their role in holding out against Russian and pro-Russian troops in Mariupol, the scene of horrific fighting at the start of the war. Their capture was a triumphant moment for Russia, which accuses the Azov Regiment of atrocities and supporting neo-Nazi ideology.
Medvedchuk, the leader of a major pro-Russian political party prior to Putin's invasion, was in prison facing treason charges. He reportedly reached Turkey by Friday. Putin is the godfather to his daughter and there was speculation the Kremlin wanted to install him as Ukrainian president as part of its plans to topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government at the outset of the invasion.
Meanwhile, in Russia the Kremlin was seeking to foster patriotic fervor by holding mass rallies in cities and towns to celebrate the annexation of Ukrainian territories and ramp up support for Putin's troop mobilization.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin announced it was calling up 300,000 reservists to bolster its overextended troops in Ukraine, where fighting has raged for 212 days and turned against Russia's armed forces following their retreat from about 3,000 square miles in the Kharkiv region.
To justify the mobilization, Russian leaders are telling citizens their country now faces an existential threat because it is at war not just with Ukraine but with the “collective West” and NATO.
Faced with mass desertions and widespread backlash over the mobilization order, the Russian government was busy trying to tamp down on discontent by announcing who will be exempted from the call to arms, such as university students and IT workers. Also, incentives were being announced.
Western media reported that there were long lines of cars trying to leave Russia and that flights out of the country were full. Media cited young Russians fleeing the country for fear of being sent to combat in Ukraine.
The referendums on joining Russia are dangerously escalating the war in Ukraine because the Kremlin says it will view any attacks on the four regions as aggression against Russian territory, reported Tass, a Russian state news agency.
“Everything is very clear on this score,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “If there is an act of accession to Russia, then, accordingly, the relevant provisions of our Constitution will take effect.”
The hastily organized referendums, taking place as war rages in the four regions, will not be recognized by international law and are brazen instruments by the Kremlin to seize control of Ukrainian territory.
On Friday, Ukraine's deputy minister of defense, Hanna Maliar, said the referendums will not change Kyiv's plans to retake all land it has lost to Russia.
“Legally, this is our territory and the intentions to liberate the temporarily occupied areas won’t change. It doesn’t matter to us, what status is of these lands in for them,” Maliar said, as reported by Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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