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Ukraine live briefing: Russia stages annexation referendums, announces draft exceptions

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/23/2022 Ellen Francis, Andrew Jeong, James Bikales, Robyn Dixon, Karina Tsui

Moscow staged annexation referendums on Friday in Ukrainian territory under its control, in a dramatic push to consolidate its grip over swaths of the country. Ukraine’s allies condemned the votes as illegal and escalatory.

In the face of backlash, Russia somewhat narrowed the parameters of a mass call up to swell the ranks of its beleaguered military.

Here’s the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

What to know about Russia’s plans to stage referendums in Ukraine

1. Annexation Referendums

  • The referendums on the prospect of joining Russia, illegal under international law, will last five days in Ukraine’s east and southeast: the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk territories in the east, Kherson in the south and occupied parts of nearby Zaporizhzhia. The move has drawn U.S. and European condemnation as a plan for Moscow to absorb Ukrainian territory.
  • The Kremlin pledged to swiftly accept the regions into Russia and said any Ukrainian attack would then be seen as an attack on Russia. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that Moscow would consider Ukrainian attempts to retake the territory “as an attack on its lands in case of a positive decision in the referendums.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared his support for the process, with little doubt that the announced result will overwhelmingly favor becoming part of Russia. When the Kremlin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after a disputed vote, it claimed that nearly 97 percent backed joining Russia.
  • Kyiv attacked the legitimacy of the referendums as a “propaganda show.” Speaking in Russian, President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Russians earlier to resist the partial military mobilization that Putin announced this week. “Tens of thousands are wounded and maimed. Want more? No? Then protest. Fight back. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for you to survive,” he said in his nightly address.
  • Moscow-backed authorities assured support for a potential annexation. “We’re coming home,” Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said Friday. He appeared in a video filling out his ballot in the street, surrounded by cameras, before he displayed it for all to see. Russian news agencies said hundreds of polling stations would only open Tuesday, and local authorities said much of the voting would be house-to-house or in “public places.”
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2. Global impact

  • World leaders have condemned hints by Russian officials at the threat of nuclear war. The United States has underscored the point behind the scenes, through private messages to Russian leaders, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
  • U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described the referendums as a “violation of the U.N. Charter and international law.” Western leaders, including President Biden, have denounced the process as a “sham.”
  • Traffic at the Finnish-Russian border was at a “higher level than usual” on Thursday but still below pre-pandemic levels, a Finnish border guard official said after Russia’s first military mobilization since World War II. Kazakhstan has seen an influx at the border from neighboring Russia, according to Reuters. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania closed their borders to most Russian citizens.
  • Diplomats clashed over allegations of Russian war crimes at a heated U.N. Security Council meeting on Thursday. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia’s withdrawal from the Ukrainian cities of Izyum and Bucha revealed gruesome torture and killings that could not be dismissed as the actions of a few bad actors. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the charges and condemned Western support for Kyiv before leaving the room.

3. Battlefield updates

  • Moscow could use nuclear weapons to defend the regions that join Russia, said former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the country’s Security Council. Washington for months has sent private warnings to Moscow about grave consequences if it used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, although it was unclear whether any messages were sent in recent days, The Washington Post reported.
  • The U.N. nuclear watchdog said “detailed talks” about a safety zone at the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine are underway. The International Atomic Energy Agency said its proposal sought to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which Russian forces control. Fighting nearby has raised fears of a disaster.

4. From our correspondents

Putin faces domestic fury over reservist call-up: Russian families bade tearful farewells on Thursday to thousands of sons and husbands abruptly summoned for military duty as part of Putin’s mobilization, Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and David L. Stern report.

“More than 1,300 people were arrested at anti-mobilization protests in cities and towns across Russia on Wednesday and Thursday,” they write. “Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed reports of booked-out flights and queues to leave Russia as ‘false.’ ”

Cars leaving Russia sit in long lines Thursday at a checkpoint at the border with Finland. © Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images Cars leaving Russia sit in long lines Thursday at a checkpoint at the border with Finland.
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