Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that raises the stakes of Moscow’s invasion seven months after fighting began.
The referendums, which are illegal under international law and dismissed as “a sham” by Western governments and Kyiv, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.
Such a move could provide Moscow with a pretext to escalate its faltering war, which has seen Kyiv regain thousands of square miles of territory this month.
In an address Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his address, saying he would use “all the means at our disposal,” if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be jeopardized.
The votes, which are expected to take place over five days, were called by pro-Russian officials in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in Russian-held parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, with questions on the ballot varying slightly depending on the region. Together the four regions make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory.