KYIV, Ukraine — Subverting a democratic process to exert its will, Russia began orchestrating votes Friday in territories it occupies in Ukraine, an effort that is expected to culminate with the annexation of an area larger than Portugal.
While the Kremlin has used referendums and annexation in the past, the boldness of President Vladimir V. Putin’s gambit in Ukraine far exceeds anything tried before.
The ballots being distributed had one question: Do you wish to secede from Ukraine and create an independent state that will enter the Russian Federation?
“We will be able to make our historic choice,” Kirill Stremousov, a leader of the Russian occupation administration in the southern region of Kherson, said in a statement.
He said the wording on the ballots — in both Ukrainian and Russian — was “in accordance with international law,” but even before the first vote, the referendum plans were met with international condemnation.
President Biden, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly this week, said that “if nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences,” then the global security order established to prevent the horrors of World War II from repeating will be imperiled.
Russian proxy officials in four regions — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizka in the south — earlier this week announced plans to hold referendums over four days beginning on Friday. Russia controls nearly all of two of the four regions, Luhansk and Kherson, but only a fraction of the other two, Zaporizka and Donetsk.
Ukrainian officials have dismissed the voting as grotesque theater — staging polls in cities laid to waste by Russian forces and abandoned by most residents.
President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Ukraine’s allies for their steadfast support and said “the farce” of “sham referenda” would do nothing to change his nation’s fight to drive Russia from Ukraine.
Ukrainian partisans, sometimes working with special operations forces, have blown up warehouses holding ballots and buildings where Russian proxy officials preparing for the vote held meetings. Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that they are engaged in a campaign to assassinate key Russian administration officials; more than a dozen have been blown up, shot and poisoned, according to Ukrainian and Russian officials.
An explosion rocked the Russian-controlled southern city of Melitopol on Friday morning before the beginning of the vote. Ivan Fedorov, the exiled mayor, warned residents to stay away from Russian military personnel and equipment. “Things are constantly exploding wherever they find themselves,” he said.
To give the appearance of widespread participation, minors ages 13 to 17 have been encouraged to vote, the Security Services of Ukraine warned on Thursday. The agency released what it said were intercepted documents outlining the plan in what is known as the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said that workers were being forced to vote under threat of losing their jobs.
The exiled mayor of the occupied city of Enerhodar, the satellite town of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the south, told residents to stay away from polling stations.
“Stay at home if possible and do not open the door to strangers,” he said in a message posted on Telegram. If forced to participate in the vote, he said, residents should “follow the instructions of the militants” and “not put yourself and your loved ones in danger.”
Olha, who communicated with friends in Enerhodar on Thursday night and did not want to use her full name out of concern for her safety, said preparations had been going on for weeks and that security had been tightened.
“Since yesterday, they do not allow men aged 18 to 35 to leave the city,” she said. “They want to conscript them to the Russian armed forces. And Ukrainians will have to fight against Ukrainians,” she said, stopping short as she broke into tears.
It was a concern expressed repeatedly by residents in occupied areas, as well as by Ukrainian officials: that one of the first consequences of annexation would be conscription of Ukrainians into the Russian military. That is already the case in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk occupied by Russia since 2014.
Anna Lukinova and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Edward Wong from New York.