With Putin’s impending announcement and fears that it could be accompanied by a declaration of martial law, the exodus of wartime Russian men trying to escape military mobilization appeared to be reaching critical levels, with bad traffic jams and long lines at border crossings.
The referendum, held illegal under Ukrainian and international law, is due to conclude on Tuesday, and the result will no doubt be portrayed as a show of overwhelming public support for joining Russia. However, Russia does not fully control any of the four regions either militarily or politically. Additionally, many residents have been displaced by the war, and there are numerous reports of civilians being forced to vote at gunpoint or under other forms of coercion.
“Russia’s leaders certainly hope that any announcement of accession will be seen as a demonstration of ‘special military action’ and mobilize patriotic support for the conflict,” the British Ministry of Defense said. However, it warned that confusion surrounding the “partial demobilization” announced by Putin last week could serve to undermine the Kremlin’s message about the merger.
Pro-Kremlin leaders of the separatist-controlled Luhansk region have already declared the referendum “completed” and plan to announce preliminary results on Tuesday evening.
In Russia, fears are growing, especially among men of fighting age, that once Ukrainian territories are absorbed, Putin will declare martial law and close off the possibility of going abroad to escape conscription.
As Putin’s expected announcement neared, there was chaos at key border crossings.
Officials in the North Ossetia region on the border with Georgia, one of the main transit hubs for Russians fleeing military mobilization, said on Tuesday they were considering declaring a state of emergency as thousands of cars lined up to cross the Verkni Lars checkpoint.
“The revenue is huge, no one expected it to be huge,” said the region’s head, Sergey Menyailo, in a live interview on a social media channel run by Russian TV host and Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.
“We cannot close the road to the Republic, so we are trying to introduce an electronic line specifically for cars,” Menyilo said. “But the issue is so complex that, most likely, I will decide to introduce a partial state of emergency,” he added.
The North Ossetia branch of the Interior Ministry said it would set up a temporary admissions office next to the crossing.
Human rights groups have reported that some Russians have been turned away from border posts, citing decisions from their local military commissars barring them from leaving the country.
Georgia said it had increased the number of guards at the checkpoint, but there was no reason to close the border. Georgian Minister of Internal Affairs Vakhtang Gomelauri said about 10,000 Russians are arriving in the country every day, almost twice as many as on September 21, when the mobilization was announced.
In Kazakhstan, residents of the border city of Uralsk, another neighboring country that allows visa-free entry for Russian passport holders, renovated a movie theater as a temporary shelter for Russians unable to rent a hotel room or apartment.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Togayev said on Tuesday that his country had an obligation to help the arriving Russians.
“In recent days, many people have been coming to us from Russia,” Tokayev said. “Most of them are forced to leave due to the current hopeless situation. We need to take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue.
The Kazakh leader has hinted at annexation votes, respecting regional unity, underscoring a growing rift with the Kremlin over the invasion of Ukraine. In an indirect attack on Putin, who has been in power since 2000, he said that if a person rules a country for many years, “it does not bring respect to this country and its leader”.
The War in Ukraine: What You Need to Know
Latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a September 21 address to the nation, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against the West, which seeks to use Ukraine “as a tool to divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our Live updates here.
Fighting: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Affiliate polls: The referendums, which are illegal under international law, will be held from September 23 to 27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged vote will be held starting Friday in Kherson by a Moscow-appointed administration.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war – Here are some of their most powerful works.
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