Ukrainians involved in ‘referendums’ face prison terms, says Kyiv

<span>Photograph: EPA</span>
Photograph: EPA

Ukraine’s authorities have said citizens helping to organise Russia’s so-called “referendums”, which concluded on Tuesday in the occupied territories, will face up to five years in prison for their role in orchestrating them.

“We have lists of names of people who have been involved in some way,” a presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Blick, adding that Ukrainians who were forced to vote would not be punished.

Russian state media – as predicted - is reporting on Tuesday that people in the occupied areas overwhelmingly voted to join Russia, with claimed exit polls ranging from 87 to 92%.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is expected to announce the territories’ annexation on Friday when he addresses both houses of Russia’s parliament, according to Russian state media.

Western countries, including the UK, have said they would not recognise the results. On Monday, the UK imposed sanctions on 33 people involved in organising the referendums. An EU spokesperson told AFP on Tuesday it planned to follow suit and the US said it would impose additional sanctions if Russia went through with annexing the territories.

Out of the four regions where the vote has been organised, Russia controls almost the entire Luhansk and Kherson regions but only parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions. The area consists of nearly 15% of Ukraine and includes about 4 million people.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that if Russia annexed the territories, it would make it impossible for Ukraine “to continue any diplomatic negotiation”.

There have been multiple reports of voter intimidation. CCTV footage from the occupied Kherson showed pollsters from the occupying authorities going door-to-door accompanied by armed Russian soldiers. Local people have been made to vote on behalf of residents who evacuated, because of low turnout, claimed Ivan Fedorov, the exiled mayor of Melitopol, in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region.

The Ukrainian journalist Maksym Eristavi tweeted that his family in southern Ukraine had been “forced to vote at gunpoint”.

“They come to your house,” he wrote. “You have to openly tick the box for being annexed by Russia (or for staying with Ukraine if you feel suicidal). All while armed gunmen watch you.”

The Russian state news agency, Tass, said voting took place door-to-door for security reasons.

The territories, along with Crimea, which Russia captured and illegally annexed in 2014, will be folded into a “Crimean Federal District”, Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper reported.

Russia has been planning to organise referendums since it first occupied the areas in March but its idea was thwarted by active fighting along the frontlines. But after Russian forces were pushed from Kharkiv region this month, Putin announced the referendums in the remaining occupied areas.

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It is thought that Russia will use the annexation to argue that Ukrainian attempts to retake the occupied territories are a direct attack on Russia and therefore could warrant a nuclear response.

“Encroachment on to Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president from 2008 to 2012 and now deputy chair of the Russian security council, warned on Telegram. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the west.”

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Medvedev reiterated Putin’s earlier remarks on Tuesday by saying Russia would use nuclear weapons if necessary and it is “certainly not a bluff”.

The US has warned Russia that there would be catastrophic consequences for Russia if it used nuclear weapons. “The United States will respond decisively,” the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told NBC.

The Financial Times reported western officials as saying they believed Russia’s nuclear threats were designed to regain momentum after its poor performance on the battlefield, noting that deploying nuclear weapons would take time and would be picked up by western intelligence.

Nevertheless, if Putin did resort to nuclear warfare, he would most likely use or test a tactical nuclear weapon, they said.

In an interview, Ukraine’s military intelligence put the threat of Russia using tactical weapons against Ukraine at “very high”. A nuclear weapon is about 100 times more powerful than the type of rockets Russia has used against Ukraine so far, said Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief.

“They will likely target places along the frontlines with lots of [army] personal and equipment, key command centres and critical infrastructure,” said Skibitsky, about Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. “In order to stop them we need not just more anti-aircraft systems, but anti-rocket systems.

“But everything will depend on how the situation develops on the battlefield.”

Russia began mobilising 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine last week – a move that sparked protests across Russia.

According to Skibitsky, Ukraine’s task is to meanwhile exact the biggest losses against Russia on the battlefield, which with mobilisation, sanctions and political isolation – and the effect these will have on Russia’s economy and society – will throw the Russian leadership further into disarray.

“It’s no longer just the periphery regions and some villages. The [partial] mobilisation affects a significant part of the population in the main cities too,” said Skibitsky.

Despite the number of men Russia plans to deploy in the coming weeks, Ukraine’s authorities and Britain’s defence ministry have sought to play down the threat, emphasising the ill-preparedness of the new recruits.

Ukraine’s authorities say they fear that men in the newly occupied territories will be conscripted to fight – as they were in the parts of eastern Ukraine that have been under Russian occupation since 2014.