KYIV, Ukraine — Moscow began orchestrating referendums on joining Russia in areas it occupies in Ukraine on Friday, an effort widely seen as a sham that is expected to culminate in the annexation of an area larger than Portugal.
While the Kremlin has used referendums and annexation in the past to exert its will, the boldness of President Vladimir V. Putin’s gambit in Ukraine far exceeds anything it has tried before. Huge numbers of people have fled the areas that Russia controls, the process has been rushed and referendums are taking place against a backdrop of oppression — with U.N. experts citing evidence of war crimes in a forceful new statement.
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..
An explosion rocked the Russian-controlled southern city of Melitopol on Friday morning before the vote got underway. Ivan Fedorov, the exiled mayor, warned residents to stay away from Russian military personnel and equipment.
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.
And 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.
Olha, who communicated with friends in Enerhodar on Thursday night and who, like others, 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.
Andriy, 44, who has friends and relatives in Kherson, said he had spoken with friends who said it wasn’t possible to leave the city because of the referendum. “You know, those who are smart, they sit at home and don’t go anywhere,” he said.
Anna Lukinova and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.
The staged voting in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine is taking place against a backdrop of violence and repression.
A campaign to “Russify” the areas began across the occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine in the first weeks of the Russian invasion, with a sophisticated propaganda apparatus that closely followed the tracks of the tanks.
Billboards were plastered with signs declaring “Russia is here forever.” Access to some Ukrainian cellphone networks was severed. Internet service was routed through Russia. The Ukrainian currency was replaced by the Russian ruble. Teachers were forced to teach a Russian curriculum.
As oppression deepened, many people fled. There are an estimated 1 to 1.2 million people living in the Russian-occupied lands seized since Feb. 24, according to Ukrainian officials — less than half the prewar population.
The places Russian forces have occupied and then abandoned are a testament to the brutality of Russian rule, Ukrainian and Western officials say.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that’s left in its wake,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the United Nations on Thursday.
While staged votes are being held in four Ukrainian provinces, Russian forces do not have control over the entire administrative regions. Russian forces in southern Ukraine are dug in, slowing a Ukrainian offensive around the Black Sea port city of Kherson, but they are struggling elsewhere.
Russia controls less than half of the Zaporizka and Donetsk regions. And in the Luhansk region, where Moscow engaged in a bloody scorched earth campaign to reach the administrative border this summer, Russian forces are now on the defensive.
The referendums are intended to give President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia legally dubious justification to declare parts of Ukraine as Russian. The staged votes recall a poll in 2014 in Crimea that took place under the watch of armed soldiers and was quickly followed by Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
The threat of nuclear conflagration has been a source of deep concern since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February, and annexing parts of Ukraine could bring them under the protection of Moscow’s nuclear umbrella. Mr. Putin warned earlier this week that Russia “will use all the means at our disposal” to defend Russian territory.
GENEVA — Russian soldiers have raped and tortured children in Ukraine, a United Nations-appointed panel of independent legal experts said in a damning statement on Friday that concluded war crimes had been committed in the conflict.
A three-person Commission of Inquiry set up in April to investigate the conduct of hostilities in four areas of Ukraine laid out the graphic allegations in an unusually hard-hitting, 11-minute statement to the U.N Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“The commission has documented cases in which children have been raped, tortured, and unlawfully confined,” the panel’s chairman, Erik Mose, told the council.
He added: “Children have also been killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons. The exposure to repeated explosions, crimes, forced displacement and separation from family members deeply affected their well-being and mental health.”
The report added more chilling allegations to the list of crimes widely reported by Ukrainian and international investigators probing the executions of civilians in Bucha and the mass burial site found near the town of Izium after it was recaptured by Ukrainian troops this month.
“Based on the evidence gathered by the Commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” Mr. Mose said in his statement. He later told reporters that the commission had not yet concluded that violations amounted to crimes against humanity.
The commission found that some Russian troops had committed sexual and gender-based violence, with the victims ranging in age from four years old to 82.
“There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes,” Mr. Mose told the council, noting that the commission was documenting the actions of individual soldiers and had not found any general pattern of sexual violence as a war strategy.
The commission’s findings were based on visits to 27 towns and settlements in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy, and interviews with more than 150 victims and witnesses. Mr. Mose said the experts inspected sites of destruction, graves and places of detention and torture.
“We were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited,” Mr. Mose told the council, noting that common features of such killings included “prior detention, hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head and slit throats.”
The commission is investigating credible reports of many more executions in 16 towns and settlements, he added.
Mr. Mose, a Norwegian judge and former president of the international criminal tribunal that prosecuted perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide, said that in interviews witnesses provided consistent accounts of torture in detention facilities. Some victims said they had been taken to Russia and detained for weeks in prisons where they said they had been subjected to beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity.
Two cases of ill-treatment of Russian soldiers by Ukrainian forces were also documented, Mr. Mose said. “While few in numbers, such cases continue to be the subject of our attention,” he said.
Russia was not present in the council to hear the commission’s statement or respond to it.
Anton Korynevych, Ukraine’s ambassador-at-large, called for the creation of a special tribunal with specific jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute senior Russian leaders.
“We believe there has never been a more appropriate time to fill a glaring gap in the architecture of international criminal justice,” he said after the commission’s presentation.
Mr. Mose said that the commission of inquiry will widen the scope of its investigation to look into filtration camps set up by Russian authorities, the forced transfer of Ukrainians and the conditions under which adoption of children by families in Russia is being expedited.
It also plans to investigate other alleged violations, such as the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the seizure or destruction of economic resources and will be making recommendations on criminal accountability to the U.N. human rights council, he added.
Kremlin-orchestrated referendums that began Friday in parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia recall a vote in 2014 in Crimea that took place under the watch of armed soldiers and was quickly followed by Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
The Crimea poll in March of that year was internationally criticized as invalid and condemned as a foregone conclusion. Official results claimed 97 percent of voters opted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, with a turnout of more than 80 percent. Two days later, citing what he called the “more than convincing” outcome of the referendum, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed a treaty of accession with the region’s new Moscow-backed leaders, officially making the peninsula part of the Russian Federation.
Mr. Putin used the referendum to justify his threat that he was ready for all-out war if Ukraine sought to retake the peninsula by force.
In the weeks before the hastily-organized vote, soldiers without identifying insignia who came to be known in Ukraine as “little green men” — later acknowledged to be Russian special forces — seized key facilities on the peninsula. The Crimean Tatars, a Muslim Turkic people with deep roots on the Black Sea peninsula who have been historically oppressed by Russia made up about 12 percent of the region’s population at the time and largely boycotted the referendum, calling the vote rigged.
The two options posed on the ballot in the staged referendum did not give voters the choice of remaining governed by Kyiv. Crimeans could either opt to become part of Russia or return to a 1992 status of broad autonomy while technically remaining part of Ukraine.
In the following weeks, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling the referendum invalid and saying that Ukraine’s borders remained unchanged despite the illegal annexation.
U.N. investigators said in a report that the referendum was preceded by widespread abuses, including the spread of misinformation, and harassment and abduction of journalists and activists opposed to secession to create a climate of fear and influence the vote.
In the months after the annexation, forces tied to Russia arbitrarily seized enterprises and property estimated to be worth more than $1 billion. Russia also began conscripting local men from Crimea into its military. A 2019 U.N. report estimated that at least 18,000 had been enlisted, with dozens prosecuted for draft evasion.
Mr. Putin could similarly use the outcome of the votes underway in swaths of Ukraine to justify annexing those territories and conscripting residents into the ranks of their armed forces, analysts and Western officials have said.
BRUSSELS — Lithuania and its neighbors sharing land borders with Russia are taking a hard line with Russian men trying to escape being drafted to fight in Ukraine, the country’s foreign minister said in an interview on Friday.
Since President Vladimir V. Putin’s announcement on Wednesday of a new troop call-up, some Russian men who had once thought they were safe from the front lines have fled the country. And they have done so in a rush, lining up at the borders.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said the Baltic States, along with Poland and Finland, have sharply tightened their policies and are checking even those Russians with valid visas to enter Europe. Most are being denied entry, he said, unless there is a clear humanitarian or journalistic reason.
“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Mr. Landsbergis said in a telephone interview from the United Nations. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”
Either they were silent, he said, or “they didn’t care, and some of them even supported it publicly.”
“Suddenly, when it’s their war, they are fleeing,” he added. “So therefore I have absolutely no trust that they are somehow changing the psyche of Russia.”
Mr. Landsbergis also urged NATO allies, including Washington and Berlin, to stop agonizing about sending more sophisticated weapons — like Western battle tanks and advanced radars — to Ukraine.
“I wish we would stop this debate about whether Ukrainians are able to use the weapons, whether the delivery of weapons is an escalation in itself,” he said. “Putin escalates no matter what we do.”
The Ukrainians have proved both adaptable and responsible, he said.
“So just deliver the weapons, stop the debate, deliver the weapons, help Ukraine win — and this is how you create this postwar reality,” Mr. Landsbergis said.
Only then could Ukraine negotiate a settlement with Russia, he said. And given that Ukraine has been fighting “our war” against NATO’s main adversary, he said, Ukraine should be promised NATO membership.
“NATO is good in defending itself, and good at promoting reform with an actual promise of membership,” he said. “So I think that it’s crucial now, already now, to return to the question that Ukraine has to get a very clear plan and offer of a membership.”
KYIV, Ukraine — Diana Pashko has spent many sleepless nights since her husband, a Ukrainian soldier who fought in the southern port city of Mariupol, was taken prisoner in May by Russian forces. But on Wednesday night, she said, “it was impossible to sleep from the excitement.”
Her husband, Lev, was free and would soon be home.
“Two hours of travel and here he is, standing on crutches, smiling, and all these months of separation seem to have never happened,” she said.
Lev was one of 215 Ukrainian soldiers released on Wednesday in the largest prisoner exchange of the war, and Ms. Pashko’s sentiment reflected the joy and relief that have rippled across the nation. Those released included 108 members of the Azov battalion, including five of its commanders, who have been vilified as “Nazis” by the Russian state news media but who are widely viewed across Ukraine as heroes for their defense of Mariupol.
In return, the Ukrainians handed over Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian businessman and politician who is a close friend of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, along with 55 other Russian soldiers, including several high-ranking officers.
“This is definitely a victory for our state, for our entire society,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Thursday.
The exchange came as a surprise, given that only a few weeks ago Russian proxy leaders in occupied eastern Ukraine said Azov soldiers would soon be put on trial — an announcement that Ukraine and its Western allies immediately condemned. The release of the Ukrainian soldiers also came just hours after Mr. Putin declared a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 more soldiers for the war.
As Ukrainians celebrated the prisoner exchange, anger coursed through the ranks of Russian mercenaries, war hawks and influential military bloggers. They have spent years promoting the notion that Azov fighters embodied the “Nazi” forces that Moscow used to justify its war. Furious that the returning Russian prisoners were barely acknowledged while Ukrainian soldiers were actively welcomed home, many in those ranks made their disapproval known.
Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel, went from being a military leader for the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to a frequent critic of Kremlin military strategy. In a statement posted on Telegram, he called the exchange “incredible stupidity,” describing it as “worse than a crime and worse than a mistake.”
Andrey Medvedev, a Russian journalist and politician, also noted the absence of ceremony for the returned Russian soldiers. “Empty airfield, no flags, no flowers,” he wrote on Telegram. “It is very weird when our heroes are met like this.”
In Ukraine, it was already dark when the released Ukrainian soldiers emerged from a bus, crying tears of joy, after crossing back into their country.
Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of the Azov commander, Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, has traveled around the world to campaign for the release of the Azov soldiers.
“My heart is going mad!” she wrote on Twitter.
Later on Thursday, Ms. Prokopenko said she could still barely process her feelings. She had spoken to her husband for only a few seconds, she said, breaking down in tears as she tried to describe how tired he looked. “I’m just scared to imagine what they did to him there,” she said, “and what is next.”
She also worried for the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers still being held by Russian forces.
Alla Samoilenko, mother of Illia Samoilenko, who was released, also wrestled with conflicting emotions. “Very many of our guys are still there, and will we have such good exchange options as we had now?” she asked. “We need to fight for them.”
— Maria Varenikova and Marc Santora
Insults, accusations and talk of war crimes and nuclear holocaust dominated the world’s premier diplomatic stage on Thursday, as the United Nations Security Council met to debate how and whether anyone would be held accountable for the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov called Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a “bastard,” but was not around long enough to hear what many of his counterparts had to say. After arriving 90 minutes late to the meeting — and missing the briefings given by António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, and Karim Khan, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court — Mr. Lavrov left early.
The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, denounced President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for saying on Wednesday that he could use all arms available to him in the war, interpreted by officials in both Russia and the West as a veiled reference to nuclear weapons.
“Every council member should send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately,” Mr. Blinken told the Security Council, in some of his sharpest comments since the war began. “Tell President Putin to stop the horror he started.”
“One man chose this war. One man can end it,” he added. “Because if Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends.”
It was the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February that Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Blinken, as well as the top diplomats of some key U.S. allies, were in the same room together.
The meeting, coinciding with the annual U.N. General Assembly gathering, was called to discuss allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses by Russian forces. But Mr. Lavrov, like Mr. Putin and other Kremlin officials, tried to flip the narrative, casting Russia as the aggrieved party.
Mr. Lavrov said Ukraine had launched “an assault” on the Russian language and trampled on the rights of ethnic Russians in the Donbas region that Russia now mostly controls. He said the goal of countries supplying weapons to Ukraine was to prolong the conflict and “to wear down and weaken Russia.”
“That policy means the direct involvement of the West in the conflict,” he said.
Mr. Lavrov was not in the room when Dmytro Kuleba, foreign minister of Ukraine, called for a special tribunal to hold Russia’s leaders accountable for the crime of aggression against his country.
“There will be no peace without justice,” Mr. Kuleba said. “None of the crimes of Russia in Ukraine would be possible without the crime of aggression.”
He described Mr. Putin’s announcement this week that Russia would call up some 300,000 reservists to active duty an admission of defeat.
In March the International Criminal Court formally opened an investigation into allegations of Russian crimes against humanity in Ukraine, and it has dispatched teams of investigators to gather evidence there. Mr. Khan said a team would travel to eastern Ukraine to investigate newer accusations.
The foreign ministers representing the 15 Security Council members all called for accountability for abuses in Ukraine, though their tones depended on whether their governments have taken sides or tried to remain neutral.
China, aligned with Russia and a permanent Council member, has not publicly condemned the invasion but has signaled reservations about it. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, called for investigations that would not be “politicized” and be “objective and fair, based on fair facts, rather than an assumption of guilt.”
CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — There was one topic of conversation among the women bundled up in front of a bombed-out building the other day as they waited in a long line at a humanitarian food truck, a nippy wind swirling around them.
“When are you going to get your glass?” one asked.
“Have you called about the glass?” another said.
“It was really cold last night. Didn’t you feel it?” said a third. “When’s the glass coming?”
This is becoming a big problem in Ukraine. So many windows have been shattered by explosions — “millions of them,” one humanitarian official estimated — that there is a nationwide run on glass.
In the towns and cities that the Russian military has pounded with earthshaking artillery barrages, nothing has been spared — not the high rises, not the schools, not the squat little cottages. Just on Monday, the shock waves from a powerful Russian missile that exploded more than 800 feet from a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine blew out more than 100 windows at the plant.
This is what has happened to countless people’s homes in the line of fire: They might have been spared a direct hit, but all their windows have been shattered. And winter is coming. Fast.
The other week here in Chernihiv, an elegant city in northern Ukraine, the temperature dropped from about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to almost freezing.
No doubt that Ukraine is facing a host of crises within crises, but one of the most urgent is the scramble to get damaged homes ready for winter, and that is where the glass comes in.