KYIV, Ukraine — Against a backdrop of war and repression, Moscow and its proxies on Friday began holding what they called referendums in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, condemned by much of the world as a mockery of voting intended to justify Russia’s annexation of those ravaged lands.
The elections, ostensibly asking if people want to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, are scheduled to take place through Tuesday under the watchful eyes of a brutal occupation. Across four regions of Ukraine, they cover a territory larger than Portugal where most residents have fled since Russia invaded seven months ago, many have been forcibly deported to Russia, and fighting is still underway.
Videos posted by local residents and Kremlin-controlled news media displayed a hastily organized and inconsistent show of voting in tense cities and towns, with no ballot secrecy and soldiers looking on, either at makeshift polling stations or with poll workers and their armed escorts going door to door to demand that ballots be filled out on the spot. People reported locking their doors and turning off their lights, pretending not to be home.
“We have learned that any refusal could result in a direct ticket to the basement,” a euphemism for abduction by the Russians, said Tina, a journalist living in occupied southern Ukraine. Her surname was withheld for her safety.
The balloting coincides with Russia’s conscription, starting this week, of large numbers of civilians to service in the military — an effort that also appears to be off to a somewhat haphazard start. There are complaints that it is concentrated more in some regions than others, and there has been confusion and contradiction about which people, and how many, are subject to the draft. The Kremlin says it is calling up about 300,000 new troops to fill its battered ranks, but Russian news outlets operating in exile say the real figure could exceed one million.
The United States and its allies are prepared to impose additional sanctions on Russia if it moves forward with annexation of parts of Ukraine, Biden administration officials said. “We know that these referenda will be manipulated,” said the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre.
Ukrainian officials, who have dismissed the voting as an illegal pantomime, say that people have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they refuse to vote. It was not clear how occupation authorities would account for communities isolated by damage to roads, power lines and communications, or for the fact that Ukrainian forces control parts of the regions included in the referendums.
The occupied areas have been subject to an intense “Russification” campaign, where opponents have been punished, teachers have been forced to teach a Russian curriculum in Russian, local officials have been replaced by occupation appointees, the Ukrainian currency has been replaced by the Russian ruble, and Ukrainians have been issued Russian passports. Omnipresent propaganda depicts the occupiers as liberators.
But despite the apparent coercion and efforts to raise voter participation in the referendums, it was not clear how much the actual balloting would matter to the announced totals. Outside observers say Russian election results are often falsified, and after seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russian authorities claimed an implausible 97 percent of its residents voted in favor of annexation.
Timothy Snyder, a Yale University historian specializing in Ukraine and Russia, wrote on Twitter that “no meaningful voting is actually going on,” in part because the occupiers lack the infrastructure for it, and that the “numbers will be invented, made up.”
In a statement, the leaders of the Group of 7 wealthy democracies said, “These sham referenda initiated today by Russia and its proxies have no legal effect or legitimacy,” citing, among other factors, “blatant intimidation of local populations.”
Ukrainian partisans in the regions have targeted Russian election infrastructure, for instance by blowing up warehouses holding ballots and buildings where officials preparing for the votes held meetings. An explosion rocked the Russian-controlled southern city of Melitopol on Friday morning before the vote got underway.
Adding to the grisly picture of life under occupation, a United Nations panel of independent legal experts reported on Friday that Russian troops had committed an array of war crimes in Ukraine, including the rape, torture and imprisonment of children.
The three-person commission laid out the graphic allegations in an unusually hard-hitting, 11-minute statement to the U.N Human Rights Council in Geneva, based on visits to 27 towns and settlements in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy that were occupied by Russian forces and then retaken by the Ukrainians. They and their experts interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses, and inspected sites of destruction, graves and places of detention and torture, said Erik Mose, a Norwegian judge who headed the panel.
“We were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited,” Mr. Mose told the council, noting that common features of such killings included “prior detention, hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head and slit throats.”
The commission found that some Russian troops had committed sexual and gender-based violence, with the victims ranging in age from 4 years old to 82.
Ukrainian and international investigators have previously reported on atrocities, including the executions of civilians in Bucha and the mass burial site found this month near the town of Izium. Ukraine’s prosecutor general said on Friday that 447 bodies had been exhumed from the site in Izium, including 425 civilians, five of them children.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that’s left in its wake,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the United Nations on Thursday.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia announced the call-up of civilians on Wednesday, a tacit admission that the Russian military, which had been widely predicted to steamroll Ukrainian resistance when the invasion began, is faltering. It has suffered heavy losses and recently given up significant territory it had captured, particularly in northeastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin had tried hard to shield most Russians from the effects of the war — a majority said in surveys that they were paying little attention to it — and preserve a sense of life as usual. The conscription news marked the first major breach in that facade.
He and other top officials also suggested that Russia could use nuclear weapons in the conflict, particularly after annexation of Ukrainian territory, when it would call any enemy action there an attack on Russian soil. “This is not a bluff,” Mr. Putin said in a speech to the nation on Wednesday.
But in an interview on Friday, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, insisted that the threat was empty bluster. “If you really want to use some kind of weapon, you will do it and you will not talk about it again and again,” he said.
The Kremlin has insisted that only men with military experience and particular skills are being called up, but anecdotal reports make clear that is not true, and that some people years — even decades — past the usual draft age have been included. It is also clear that the conscription is concentrated more heavily in poorer, outlying areas, including those populated by ethnic minorities, than in the major western cities that are home to Russia’s elite.
The call-up has prompted protests in many cities, with some protesters being handed draft notices in retaliation. It has also spurred some draft-eligible men to book flights out of the country; it is not clear why the government was allowing them to leave, or what efforts it was making to prevent them.
On Friday, the Kremlin announced new draft exemptions, apparently in response to complaints from major businesses that they risked losing vital workers. The Ministry of Defense said that people with certain jobs in banking, information technology and telecommunications would be exempt. Organizations representing software developers and air traffic controllers requested exemptions for their members.
Reporting was contributed by Valerie Hopkins in Berlin, Maria Varenikova and Anna Lukinova in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nick Cumming-Bruce in Geneva, Dan Bilefsky in Montreal, Cora Engelbrecht in London, Ivan Nechepurenko in Tbilisi, Georgia, Jim Tankersley in Washington, and Anton Troianovski and Richard Pérez-Peña in New York.