Kremlin-installed authorities in four Ukrainian regions under Russian control claim victory in annexation votes, drawing global outrage, as Moscow warns it could use nuclear weapons to defend its territories.
Kremlin-installed authorities in four Ukrainian regions under Russian control have claimed victory in annexation votes, drawing global outrage, as Moscow warned it could use nuclear weapons to defend the territories.
Ukraine and its allies denounced the so-called referendums as a "sham," saying the West would never recognise the results of the ballots that have dramatically ratcheted up the stakes of Russia's seven-month aggression.
Pro-Russian authorities in Zaporizhzhia said 93.11 percent of voters backed joining Russia, according to preliminary results on Tuesday evening.
In Kherson, another Moscow-occupied region in southern Ukraine, officials said more than 87.05 percent of electors supported the move after all the ballots were counted.
In the eastern Luhansk region controlled by pro-Russia separatists, local authorities said more than 98.42 percent voted in favour of annexation, according to local authorities.
And officials in the Moscow-held Donetsk region claimed victory as well, with the local poll body saying 99.23 percent of the vote was for annexation.
"Saving people in the territories where this referendum is taking place ... is the focus of the attention of our entire society and of the entire country," Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier during a televised meeting with officials.
His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the votes would have "radical" legal implications and that the so-called referendums "will also have consequences for security", referring to Moscow's threats to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory.
'Nothing to talk about'
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed that Kiev would defend its citizens in Moscow-held regions and rejected the referendums as a "farce."
And he said the votes mean Kiev will not negotiate with Moscow.
"There is nothing to talk about with (the) current Russian president," Zelenskyy said.
Russian forces this month have suffered serious setbacks in Ukraine's east and south, which observers say pushed Putin to rush ahead with the vote to cement Moscow's authority there.
Putin said Russia would use any and all available means to defend its territory, implying that after annexation, Moscow could deploy strategic nuclear weapons to repulse Ukrainian attempts to retake the territory.
"I want to remind you — the deaf who hear only themselves: Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary," former leader Dmitry Medvedev — a Putin ally who is now deputy chairman of Russia's security council — said on social media Tuesday.
Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the United States was taking the reiterated threat "seriously" but had seen nothing to cause Washington to change its nuclear posture.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that "Russia must know that the nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."
The four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine announced that they would hold the elections just days before voting began last Friday.
Together, they form a crucial land connection for the Kremlin between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and is otherwise only connected to the mainland by bridge.
China calls for respecting territorial integrity
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that the West would never recognise Russian annexations of the territories, threatening Moscow with "additional swift and severe costs" for its "diabolical scheme".
United States intends to submit a resolution urging member states "not to recognise any altered status of Ukraine and obligating Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine," said US envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Moscow's closest major ally since the Ukraine fighting, Beijing has yet to overtly condemn the offensive, but it told the Security Council on Tuesday that the "territorial integrity of all countries should be respected."
The so-called referendums follow a pattern that Moscow utilised in Crimea after nationwide street demonstrations saw Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly president ousted.
As in Crimea, the outcome was viewed by observers as a foregone conclusion.