- Ukrainian leader says Russian 'vote' was a farce
- Moscow hails results as legitimate
- Suggests next step is formal annexation
- Some Ukrainians said they were forced to vote
- Some Ukrainians are fleeing occupied territory
Moscow moved closer on Wednesday to annexing a swath of Ukraine, releasing what it called vote tallies showing support for four partially occupied provinces to join Russia, after what Kyiv and the West denounced as illegal sham referendums held at gunpoint.
The Russian-installed administrations of at least two of the four provinces, Luhansk and Kherson, formally asked President Vladimir Putin to incorporate them into Russia.
The Kremlin leader is expected to proclaim the annexation in a speech on Friday, just over a week since he endorsed the referendums, ordered a military mobilisation at home and threatened to defend Russia's claims with nuclear weapons.
"The results are clear. Welcome home, to Russia!," Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who serves as deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said on Telegram, after the release of the results.
Russian-backed authorities claim to have carried out the referendums in four provinces - Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia as well as Kherson and Luhansk - over five days.
Residents who escaped to Ukrainian-held territory in recent days have told of people being forced to tick ballots in the street by roving officials at gunpoint. Footage filmed during the exercise showed Russian-installed officials taking ballot boxes from house to house with armed men in tow.
Russia says voting was voluntary and turn-out was high.
"This farce in the occupied territories cannot even be called an imitation of a referendum," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in video address overnight.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, told Reuters that Ukrainians who helped organise the exercise would face treason charges and at least five years in jail. Ukrainians who were forced to vote would not be punished.
The Russian annexation plan gathered pace even as gas erupted in a whirlwind from the Baltic Sea after suspected explosions tore through undersea Russian pipelines on Tuesday. The Nord Stream pipelines, once the main route for Russian gas to Germany, were already shut but now cannot be easily reopened.
NATO and the European Union warned of the need to protect critical infrastructure from what they called "sabotage", though officials stopped short of saying who they blamed. The Kremlin said any theory that might point fingers at Russia for blowing up its own pipelines would be "stupid".
The United States is preparing a new round of sanctions to punish Russia for the annexation move and a $1.1 billion arms package for Ukraine that will be announced soon, U.S. officials said. read more
The head of Russia's upper house of parliament has said the chamber could approve the regions' accession as soon as Oct. 4.
The annexation is part of a huge escalation strategy announced by Putin last week, along with the swift call-up of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to fight, and a new threat to use nuclear weapons, which he said was "not a bluff".
The moves followed a stunning setback at the front, when Russian forces hastily abandoned territory the size of Cyprus in a matter of days.
Russian officials have said any attack on annexed territory would be an attack on Russia itself.
In the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainians who had managed to flee Russian-occupied territory through the last frontline checkpoint described the so-called referendum as a joke.
"It's funny. Nobody voted, yet the results are in," laughed Lyubomir Boyko, 43, originally from Golo Pristan, a village in Russian-occupied Kherson province, as he waited with his family on Wednesday outside a U.N. aid office at a refugee reception centre.
"They can announce anything they want. Nobody voted in the referendum except a few people who switched sides. They went from house to house, but nobody came out," said Boyko.
Residents said many were fleeing for fear that Moscow will immediately start press-ganging men to fight in its forces, once it declares the territory to be Russia. For now, Russian officials at the checkpoint were letting some people leave.
"The line of vehicles was so long you could not see the end of it," said Andriy, 37, an agricultural worker from Beryslav in Kherson province who declined to give his last name, describing the checkpoint.
Entire villages had emptied, he said, standing by the yellow, mud-spattered minibus in which he arrived with his wife, two children and parents.
"Seventy percent of people are leaving because of the referendum. There was no light, no gas, and no work and all of a sudden, you get the referendum. It's complete nonsense. I don't know a single person among those I know who voted."