KYIV — The Kremlin paved the way Tuesday to annex more of Ukraine and escalate the war by claiming that residents of a large swath overwhelmingly supported joining with Russia in stage-managed referendums the United States and its Western allies have dismissed as illegitimate.
Pro-Moscow officials said all four occupied regions of Ukraine voted to join Russia. According to Russia-installed election officials, 93 percent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87 percent in the Kherson region, 98 percent in the Luhansk region, and 99 percent in Donetsk. Possibly explaining the lower favorable vote in Kherson is that Russian authorities there have faced a strong Ukrainian underground resistance movement whose members have killed Moscow-appointed officials and threatened those who considered voting.
In a remark that appeared to rule out negotiations, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky told the UN Security Council by video from Kyiv that Russia’s attempts to annex Ukrainian territory will mean “there is nothing to talk about with this president of Russia.”
He added that “any annexation in the modern world is a crime, a crime against all states that consider the inviolability of border to be vital for themselves.”
The preordained outcome sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in Russia’s seven-month war, with the Kremlin threatening to throw more troops into the battle and potentially use nuclear weapons.
The referendums asking residents whether they wanted the four occupied southern and eastern Ukraine regions to be incorporated into Russia began Sept. 23, often with armed officials going door-to-door collecting votes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to address Russia's parliament about the referendums on Friday, and Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the body's upper house, said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on Oct. 4.
Meanwhile, Russia ramped up warnings that it could deploy nuclear weapons to defend its territory, including newly acquired land, and continued mobilizing more than a quarter-million additional troops to deploy to a front line of more than 620 miles.
After the balloting, “the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.
Many Western leaders have called the referendum a sham, and the UN Security Council met Tuesday in New York to discuss the voting, with the United States and Albania planning to introduce a resolution that says the results will never be accepted and that the four regions remain part of Ukraine. Russia is certain to veto the resolution.
The balloting and a call-up of Russian military reservists Putin ordered last Wednesday are aimed at buttressing Moscow’s exposed military and political positions.
The referendums follow a familiar Kremlin playbook for territorial expansion and more aggressive military action. In 2014, Russian authorities held a similar referendum on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, under the close watch of Russian troops. Based on the voting, Russia annexed Crimea. Putin cited the defense of Russians living in Ukraine's eastern regions, their supposed desires to join with Russia, and an existential security threat to Russia as a pretext for his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Putin has been talking up Moscow's nuclear option since Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that reclaimed territory and has increasingly cornered his forces. A top Putin aide ratcheted up the nuclear rhetoric Tuesday.
The United States has dismissed the Kremlin's nuclear talk as a scare tactic.
Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions because of the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.
Mayor Vadym Boychenko of Mariupol, who left the port city after the Russians seized it after a monthslong siege, said only about 20 percent of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum. Mariupol’s prewar population was 541,000.
“A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?” Boychenko asked during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting.
Elsewhere, trouble emerged for Putin in the mass call-up he ordered of Russians to active military duty.
The order has triggered an exodus of nearly 200,000 men from Russia, fueled antiwar protests, and sparked violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire in an enlistment office in a Siberian city and gravely wounded the local chief military recruitment officer. Scattered arson attacks had been reported earlier on other enlistment offices.
One destination of fleeing Russian men is Kazakhstan, which reported Tuesday that about 98,000 Russians have crossed into Kazakhstan over the past week.
The European Union’s border and coast guard agency says 66,000 Russian citizens entered the 27-nation bloc from Sept. 19 to 25, a 30 percent increase over the preceding week.
Russian officials tried to intercept some of the fleeing reservists on one of the main exodus routes, issuing conscription notices on the Georgian border. According to the state-run Tass agency, an enlistment task force was handing out notices at the Verkhnii Lars checkpoint, where an estimated 5,500 cars were lining up to cross. Independent Russian news sources have reported unconfirmed claims that draft-age men will be banned from leaving after the referendum.
As Moscow worked to build up its troops in Ukraine, potentially sending them to supplement its proxies who have been fighting in the separatist regions for the past eight years, Russian shelling continued to claim lives. Russian barrages killed at least 11 civilians and wounded 18 in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Tuesday.
The war’s human toll was also reflected in a UN human rights monitoring mission’s first comprehensive look at violations and abuses Russia and Ukraine committed between Feb. 1 and July 31, the first five months of Russia’s invasion.
Matilda Bogner, the mission’s chief, said Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to have faced “systematic” mistreatment, "not only upon their capture, but also following their transfer to places of internment” in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine and Russia itself.