Four areas of Ukraine controlled by Russia and pro-Moscow forces started their referendums on Friday on seceding from the eastern European country and joining the Russian federation.
Voting is being held in the breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk – already controlled by pro-Russia separatists and recognized by Moscow – as well as in the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhia and will continue until September 27.
"All of us have been waiting for a referendum on joining Russia for 8 long years," said Leonid Pasechnik, the Russian-backed leader of Luhansk. "We have already become part of Russia. There remains only a small matter – to win (the war)."
"We are returning home," said the Russian-backed leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin. "Donbas is Russia."
The voting process in the four regions would be nontraditional, Russia’s official TASS news agency reported. “Given the short deadlines and the lack of technical equipment, it was decided not to hold electronic voting and use the traditional paper ballots," it said.
According to the report, authorities will go door-to-door for the first four days to collect votes, and polling stations will open only on the final day for residents to cast their ballots.
The voting, however, has been denounced as illegitimate by Kiev and its Western allies, who insist that the referendums pave the way for Moscow to formally control nearly 15 percent of the Ukrainian territory.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin backed the referendums after the Russian-controlled regions lined up with a request to officially join the neighboring country.
During the referendum in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – which Putin had already recognized as independent states just before Russia began its ”special military operation” -- residents will have to answer if they support their “republic’s entry into Russia,” according to TASS.
The question on the ballots in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, however, will be phrased differently: “Are you in favor of secession from Ukraine, formation of an independent state by the region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
Russia currently controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, nearly 80 percent of Zaporizhzhia, and just 60 percent of Donetsk, according to wire reports.
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has censured the voting, insisting that the referendums were a sign of Russia’s weakness rather than strength.
A day after the referendums were announced, Putin declared mobilization of reservists to strengthen Russian forces in Ukraine, further emphasizing that he was ready to use nuclear weapons to fend off any attacks on Russian territory.
“Any decision that the Russian leadership may take changes nothing for Ukraine,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement on Thursday.
“Of interest to us are strictly the tasks before us,” he added. “This is the liberation of our country, defending our people and mobilizing world support [public opinion] to carry out those tasks.”
In a similar referendum held in Crimea back in 2014, 97 percent of voters favored joining the Russian state amid condemnation by Kiev and its Western sponsors.
Ukraine, whose post-Soviet borders Russia recognized under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, insists that it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and will fight until the last Russian soldier is ousted.
Putin, meanwhile, emphasized that Moscow would never abandon those in the regions it controls and whom he said wanted to secede from Kiev.
He regards the persisting conflict as both a battle to save Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine from persecution and as a way to thwart what he describes as a Western plot to destroy Russia.
The Russian president further underlined that he would defend Russian territory -- and the regions of Ukraine that will soon be considered part of Russia -- with all means at his disposal.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in a Western-sponsored revolt. Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas -- which is comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk – then sought to break away from Kiev's control.
In late February, Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the 2014 Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.