Annexation referendums in four occupied territories of Ukraine will end later on Tuesday, paving the way for Moscow to officially seize more territory and expand its military operation, possibly within days.
Votes to join Russia are taking place in Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia, four regions that make up about 15 percent of Ukraine’s landmass.
While Kyiv and its Western allies reject the “sham” polls, Russian media report high turnout.
In rebel-held Luhansk, turnout was over 90 percent early Tuesday, according to Kremlin-backed newspaper RIA Novosti.
Moscow insists the vote is voluntary and the polls are fair, but the results will inevitably favor annexation.
When Russia held a referendum in Crimea after conquering the peninsula in 2014, it declared that 97 percent of the people voted to join Russia.
But even traditional Russian allies like Serbia and Kazakhstan have said they will not recognize recent annexation votes.
The five-day exercise was marred by irregularities, including reports of Russian troops carrying ballot boxes from door to door and forcing Ukrainians to vote.
“In no way, certainly in the eyes of Ukrainians, are these votes legitimate or do they provide any sort of guideline as to what the people living in these occupied territories want,” said Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv.
Kyiv has warned that Ukrainians who support the referendums and annexations could face a charge of treason and at least five years in prison.
“We have lists of names of people who were involved in some way,” presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak told the Swiss newspaper Blick.
“We are talking about hundreds of employees. They are charged with high treason. They face at least five years in prison,” he said.
However, Podolyak said, Ukrainians forced to vote would not be penalized.
threat of nuclear weapons
Given the recent humiliating battlefield setbacks for his forces in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin hopes the vote to annex Russia will boost wartime performance.
While the votes were in progress, the Kremlin warned Kyiv of a devastating escalation of the conflict, including the use of its nuclear arsenal.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council chaired by Putin, issued the threat in the most blunt terms on Tuesday.
“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime, which committed a large-scale act of aggression dangerous for the existence of our state,” Medvedev wrote on his Telegram app channel. “I believe that in this case NATO will refrain from direct interference in the conflict.”
According to reports, the Russian parliament could possibly approve the annexation before the end of this week, allowing Putin to declare its incorporation into Russia.
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Moscow, said the Russian media had presented the votes for the referendum as “smooth”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday the Donetsk region in the east remains his country’s top strategic priority as fighting engulfs several cities while Russian troops try to advance south and west.
Ukraine’s recent success in retaking territory has forced Putin to reconsider Russia’s military strategy, leading to the call-up of a reported 300,000 reserve troops.