Russian-organised referendums that could lead to annexing 15% of Ukraine’s territory were due to end on Tuesday as the Kremlin said it made no decisions on closing its borders as the first mobilisation since World War Two prompted some to flee.
Voting in the Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the east and southeast began on Friday and have been dismissed as a sham by Western nations, which have pledged not to recognise the results.
In Russia, the call-up of some 300,000 reservists has led to the first sustained protests since the invasion began, with one monitoring group estimating at least 2,000 people have been arrested so far. All public criticism of Russia’s “special military operation” is banned.
Flights out of Russia have sold out and cars have clogged border checkpoints, with reports of a 48-hour queue at the sole road border to Georgia, the rare pro-Western neighbour that allows Russian citizens to enter without a visa.
Asked about the prospect of the border being shut, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday: “I don’t know anything about this. At the moment, no decisions have been taken on this.”
Russia counts millions of former conscripts as official reservists. The authorities have not spelled out precisely who is due to be called up, as that part of President Vladimir Putin’s order is classified.
The mobilisation has also seen the first sustained criticism of the authorities within state-controlled media since the war began.
But Sergei Tsekov, a senior lawmaker who represents Russian-annexed Crimea in Russia’s upper house of parliament, told RIA news agency: “Everyone who is of conscription age should be banned from travelling abroad in the current situation.”
Two exiled news sites – Meduza and Novaya Gazeta Europe – both reported that the authorities were planning to ban men from leaving, citing unidentified officials.
Moscow says it wants to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Kyiv and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression.
Late on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the military situation in Donetsk – one of the four areas where votes are taking place – as difficult.
“The situation… is particularly severe,” he said. “We are doing everything to contain enemy activity. This is our No. 1 goal right now because Donbas is still the No. 1 goal for the occupiers,” referring to the wider region that encompasses Donetsk and Luhansk.
Last week, in what appeared to be choreographed requests, Russian-backed officials there and in other areas that together equal roughly the size of Portugal lined up to request referendums on joining Russia. read more
The self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which Putin recognised as independent just before the invasion, and Russian-installed officials in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions asked for votes.
Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would defend any territory it annexes using any weapons in its arsenal.
U.S. national Security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday the United States would respond “decisively” to any Russian use of nuclear weapons, and had privately told Moscow “exactly what that would mean”.
Asked about Sullivan’s comments, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said on Monday: “There are channels for dialogue at the proper level, but they are of a very sporadic nature. At least they allow for the exchange of some emergency messages about each other’s positions.”
Moves to annex Ukrainian regions could happen quickly.
TASS news agency last week quoted an unnamed Duma source as saying the chamber could debate a bill on incorporating parts of Ukraine as soon as Thursday, while RIA Novosti has previously said Putin could be preparing to make a formal address to an extraordinary joint session of both houses on Friday.
None of the provinces in question is fully under Moscow’s control and fighting has been under way along the entire front line, with Ukrainian forces reporting more advances since they routed Russian troops in a fifth province, Kharkiv, earlier this month.
The exiled mayor of Russian-controlled Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region accused Russia of forcibly enlisting Ukrainian men in occupied areas into its armed forces and denounced the referendum as “a fake and a farce”.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk Serhiy Gaidai said Russian-backed officials were carrying ballot boxes door to door, accompanied by security officials, and that residents’ names were taken down if they failed to vote as demanded.
Even traditional Russian allies such as Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognise the annexation votes.
Moscow says voting is voluntary and turnout is high. When it held a referendum in Crimea after seizing that peninsula in 2014, it declared 97% of people had voted for annexation.