Russia declares closure of referendum in occupied regions of Ukraine: 98.5% pro-unification

Russia declares closure of referendum in occupied regions of Ukraine: 98.5%

Moscow-appointed officials in the Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine said Tuesday that an overwhelming majority of residents voted in favor of joining Russia, after five days of voting in so-called referendums that Kiev and the West have denounced as orchestrated.

The hastily organized polls were held in four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which together make up about 15% of Ukraine's territory.

Luhansk authorities said 98.5% of residents had voted to join Russia, based on 69% of votes counted. In Zaporizhzhia, the figure was 92.9%, with more than 70% of votes counted, while in Kherson the "yes" vote was over 87%, according to the head of the polling commission. The figures for Donetsk had not been released.

Inside the occupied territories, officials deployed by Russia took ballot boxes from house to house, in a move that Ukraine and the West said was an illegal and coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.

President Vladimir Putin could then frame any Ukrainian attempt to retake them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia's "territorial integrity."

The vote was similar to the referendum in Crimea after its takeover by Russia in 2014, when Crimean leaders declared that 97% of voters were in favor of secession from Ukraine and union with Russia.

President Putin said on state television on Tuesday that the votes were aimed at protecting against what he called persecution of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers from Ukraine, something Kiev has denied.

"Saving the people in all the territories where this referendum is being held is at the center of our attention and our whole society and our country," he said.

Moscow has taken steps in recent months to "Russify" areas under its control, including issuing Russian passports and rewriting school curricula.

The referendums were hastily organized this month after the Ukrainian counter-offensive successfully contained Russian forces on the battlefield in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that if the results of the vote were in favor of secession, she could consider incorporating the four regions into Russia on October 4, three days before President Putin's 70th birthday.