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Ukraine condemns ‘propaganda show’ as votes on joining Russia under way in occupied regions

Ukraine has condemned as a “propaganda show” the referendums on joining Russia that are under way in four areas of Ukraine controlled by Russia and pro-Moscow forces.

Voting in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, representing around 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory, is due to run from Friday to Tuesday.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the office of Ukraine’s president, described the votes as a “propaganda show”, saying “there is no legal action called a ‘referendum’ in the occupied territories.”

Ivan Fedorov, Ukraine’s elected mayor of Melitopol, has said “participation in a pseudo-referendum is the worst betrayal”.

Serhai Haidai, Ukraine’s governor of Luhansk, has said all those involved in running today’s votes in occupied areas of Ukraine will be punished.

He described them as “elections without elections”, and referring to the suggestion that officials are going house-by-house to enable people to vote from home. Mr Haidai said: “They fill out some pieces of paper in kitchens, in apartments and yards. It looks extremely strange. It does not smell like privacy.”

He also suggested that part of the operation was also to establish people who might be available for conscription.

The plans have been widely condemned by the West as illegitimate and a precursor to illegal annexation. Nato has condemned the votes as Moscow’s “blatant attempts at territorial conquest”. The “sham” referendums have no legitimacy, the alliance said.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on Russians to resist the partial military mobilisation announced by Vladimir Putin, which has sparked protests and a fresh exodus out of Russia.

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The Ukrainian president said in his daily address on Thursday: “55,000 Russian soldiers died in these six months of war … Want more? No? Then protest, fight back, run away, or surrender” to the Ukrainian army.”

Thousands of men across Russia have been handed draft papers after the mobilisation announcement.

Among those called up since Mr Putin’s announcement on Wednesday were Russians detained while protesting against the mobilisation, the independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group said.

The Kremlin has dismissed reports of an exodus of Russian men of fighting age as “exaggerated”. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, also declined to deny Russian media reports that some anti-mobilisation protesters detained on Wednesday night had been given draft papers, saying: “This is not against the law.”

Mr Peskov also denied reports that an undisclosed clause in Mr Putin’s mobilisation decree provided for one million reservists to be enlisted to fight in Ukraine.

The conscription drive is “unlikely to generate effective soldiers and is prompting significant domestic backlash for little gain,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has said in its latest Russian offensive campaign assessment, released a few hours ago.

According to the think tank and Guardian reports, Russian authorities have already begun breaking their commitments to restrict conscription to men with military experience, and not to draft Russian students.

Traffic at Russian border crossings with Finland and Georgia surged after the mobilisation announcement sparked fears that men of fighting age would be called to the front lines in Ukraine.

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Prices for one-way flights out of Moscow to the nearest foreign locations rose above $5,000 (£€5,087), with most air tickets sold out for the coming days.

Photographs showed long tailbacks at border crossings with Finland and Georgia. In response, Finland’s prime minister said her government was considering ways to sharply reduce Russian tourism and transit through Finland.

Elsewhere, many of the Ukrainians exchanged in the largest prisoner swap with Russia since the beginning of the invasion show signs of violent torture, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Ukraine announced the exchange of a record-high 215 imprisoned soldiers with Russia, including fighters who led the defence of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks that became an icon of Ukrainian resistance.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has strongly rebuked Russia for “totally unacceptable” nuclear threats.

Speaking at the start of a UN security council meeting the day after Mr Putin raised the stakes in his invasion of Ukraine, Mr Guterres said Moscow’s plans to annex parts of Ukraine were a “violation of the UN charter and of international law”. — Guardian