According to an early count, up to 98% of voters have said yes to joining Russia in the four Moscow-occupied areas of Ukraine, Russian state-owned media outlets reported on Tuesday.
The referendums, which Russian President Vladimir Putin announced along with the partial mobilisation on last Wednesday, have been blasted by the West as a sham, rigged to bolster Moscow’s claims over the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.
Hastily arranged votes had taken place over five days, including Tuesday. The four occupied regions — some partially under Russian control — make up about 15% of Ukrainian territory.
Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house in what both Ukraine and the West said was a coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the areas.
The Ukrainian outlets pointed out that the population figures Russian-installed authorities cite are incorrect since around 80% of the pre-war inhabitants have either left Ukraine as refugees or have become internally displaced in other parts of the country.
The final count is expected as early as Tuesday evening. Putin is poised to announce the annexation of the four territories as early as Friday, when he is scheduled to address the Russian parliament.
Earlier, Moscow has vowed to give annexed regions of Ukraine “full protection,” which could also involve the use of its nuclear arsenal, as the legal pretext would let Putin and the Kremlin portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself.
Ukraine has repeatedly warned that the Russian annexation of additional territories would destroy any chance of peace talks seven months after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of the country in late February.
RIA said the initial counts showed majorities ranging from 96.97% in the Kherson region, based on 14% of votes counted, to 98.19% in Zaporizhzhia, based on 18% of the count.
The majorities in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were just under 98%, with 14% and 13% respectively of votes tallied.