Russian news agencies on Wednesday released what they called the final tallies of ballots cast in four Russian-occupied Ukrainian provinces on a referendum to join Russia.
The voting was widely seen in Ukraine and the West as a cynical sham, propaganda intended for little more than creating a pretext for Russia to lay claim to Ukrainian land.
Tass, the Russian state news agency, said the ballot count showed 87 percent of voters supported joining Russia in Kherson region; 93 percent in Zaporizhzhia region; 99 percent in Donetsk region; and 98 percent in Luhansk region in the east.
Residents of occupied areas of Ukraine reached by telephone described extremely low turnout at polling stations. They also said that occupation authorities had used myriad techniques to influence the vote, from propaganda and free concerts, to raw intimidation by Russian soldiers, who stood near ballot boxes gripping guns.
Pavlo, a resident of the town of Berislav in Kherson region, who asked that his surname not be made public for fear of retaliation, scoffed in a telephone interview at the notion of wanting to join Russia.
“When they first came to our town, they beat me up and took both of my cars,” he said of Russian soldiers. “And now they threatened that if I don’t vote they will evict me and my family from our apartment.”
Because of the threats, he said, he cast a vote in support of uniting with Russia.
In Donetsk and Luhansk, separatist states aligned with Moscow claim to have boundaries that stretch to the administrative borders of Ukrainian provinces, even though much of those regions are still under Ukrainian control.
The Ukrainian army today controls about 50 percent of Donetsk region and a sliver of territory in Luhansk, the Ukrainian governor of the region said.
Still, local officials are claiming the putative results of the vote showed the will of residents of the entire regions.
It was not immediately clear what borders Russian authorities would draw around Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The Ukrainian regional government said 75 percent of the population of Zaporizhzhia region live in government-held territory, and Ukraine controls portions of Kherson region along a shifting frontline.
Battered in the Ukrainian counter strikes and fighting on a landscape of open steppe offering few places to find cover, the Russian army is unlikely to be able to capture Ukraine-controlled areas in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, even if Moscow claims those regions are somehow covered by the discredited referendums, the Ukrainian military said in a statement Wednesday.
“They are not able to advance,” Nataliia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military in the south, said Wednesday. “In Kherson region, on our front, they simply cannot hide as it is open surfaces and endless steppe where there are no forest.”