KYIV — People living in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are being asked to vote in what the authorities are describing as local elections.
Ukraine’s foreign minister called the polls a “sham”, saying the votes would not have any legal standing.
Candidates are all either Russian or pro-Russian, and include governors hand-picked by Moscow.
Many taking part in early polling have been asked to cast their votes in the presence of armed Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian officials have warned people not to participate. They say any Ukrainian citizens involved in organizing the elections can expect to be punished in the future.
The Council of Europe, a human rights body, condemned the move in the “illegally annexed Ukrainian territories” as a “flagrant violation of international law, which Russia continues to disregard”.
Not only are these areas an integral part of Ukraine, but the decision to hold elections there “creates the illusion of democracy”, the council said in a statement.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also decried the polls saying: “Russia’s sham elections in occupied areas of Ukraine are illegitimate.” This sparked a response from the Russian embassy in the US, which accused Washington of meddling in Moscow’s internal affairs, state media reported.
The elections, which conclude on Sunday, and are taking place in four regions that Russia does not even fully control — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Together they make up 15% of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
These are the areas that Russia formally claimed as its own in September last year, after holding so-called referendums on the future of the occupied lands.
Those referendums were condemned by the international community as a sham — with reports of over 99% support for the regions switching to Moscow’s control — and at times involved armed soldiers going from door to door to gather votes.
The exiled mayor of the city of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov described the current local elections as “illegal and worthless”, saying that many candidates in the Zaporizhzhia region were not residents, with some even coming from Siberia.
He told the AP news agency the city had faced tighter security in recent days and residents were intimidated because voting in an occupied city was like “voting in a prison”.
The Zaporizhzhia region is also the focus of Kyiv’s counter-offensive, which was launched in the summer.
Ukrainian generals claim they have breached Russia’s formidable first line of defenses in that region, suggesting the counter-offensive there is poised to gain momentum.
Analysts at the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) say recent advances there are “tactically significant” and are “widening the Ukrainian breach of Russian defensive lines in the area and threatening Russian secondary lines of defense”.
The focus of Ukraine’s efforts there has been around the village of Robotyne, which is some 56km (35 miles) south-east of the city of Zaporizhzhia, the regional capital. — BBC