LONDON, Sept 27 (Reuters) – First partial voting results from four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine showed overwhelming majorities in favour of becoming part of Russia, Russian state news agency RIA said on Tuesday, after so-called referendums that Kyiv and the West have denounced as a sham.
Hastily arranged votes had taken place over five days in the four areas – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – that make up about 15% of Ukrainian territory.
Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West said was an illegitimate, coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.
President Vladimir Putin could then portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia.
Ukraine has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of additional territories would destroy any chance of peace talks, seven months after Moscow launched its invasion of the country.
RIA said the initial counts showed majorities ranging from 96.97% in the Kherson region, based on 14% of votes counted, to 98.19% in Zaporizhzhia, based on 18% of the count.
The majorities in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were just under 98%, with 14% and 13% respectively of votes tallied.
Russia says it is up to the people of the four regions to decide for themselves if they want to come under Moscow’s rule. In the run-up to the votes, it acted to “Russify” the occupied territories, including by issuing people with Russian passports and rewriting school curriculums.
Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that if the referendum results were favourable, it could consider the incorporation of the four regions on Oct. 4.
(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan, Editing by Alex Richardson and Mark Heinrich)