Moscow's proxies in occupied Ukraine regions report big votes to join Russia

LONDON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Russian-installed officials in occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities on Tuesday in favour of becoming part of Russia after five days of voting in so-called referendums that Kyiv and the West denounced as a sham.

Hastily arranged votes had taken place in four areas - the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and to the south Zaporizhzhia and Kherson - that make up about 15% of Ukrainian territory.

Luhansk authorities said 98.4% of people there had voted to join Russia. In Zaporizhzhia, a Russian-appointed official put the figure at 93.1%. In Kherson, the head of the voting committee put the "yes" vote at above 87%.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said 99.2% of participants in the region had voted to join Russia. All four areas said all ballots had been counted.

Within the occupied territories, Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West said was an illegitimate, coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin could then portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the "territorial integrity" of Russia.

Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who serves as deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, posted a brief celebratory message on Telegram. "The referendums are over," he said. "The results are clear. Welcome home, to Russia!"

Displaced people from the four regions were able to cast votes in Russia, where state news agency RIA said early counts showed numbers in excess of 96% in favour of coming under Moscow's rule.

UKRAINE: ANNEXATION WILL DESTROY PEACE TALKS

Ukraine has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of territories would destroy any chance of peace talks, seven months after Russia invaded its neighbour. It says Ukrainians who helped Russia organise the votes will face treason charges.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the European Union to impose further economic sanctions on Russia to punish it for staging the votes, which he said would not change Ukraine's actions on the battlefield.

The votes mirrored a referendum in Crimea after Russia's seizure of the southern peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, when Crimea's leaders declared a 97% vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Putin said on state TV on Tuesday that the votes were designed to protect people from what he has called the persecution of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers by Ukraine, something the Kyiv government has denied.

"Saving people in all the territories where this referendum is being held is at the top of our minds and the focus of attention of our entire society and country," he said.

Moscow has acted in recent months to "Russify" areas under its control, including by issuing people with Russian passports and rewriting school curriculums.

The referendums were hurriedly brought forward this month after Ukraine seized the momentum on the battlefield by routing Russian forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that if the vote results were favourable, it could consider the incorporation of the four regions on Oct. 4, three days before Putin celebrates his 70th birthday.

Reporting by Reuters; editing by Grant McCool and Stephen Coates

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Thomson Reuters

Chief writer on Russia and CIS. Worked as a journalist on 7 continents and reported from 40+ countries, with postings in London, Wellington, Brussels, Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin. Covered the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Security correspondent from 2003 to 2008. Speaks French, Russian and (rusty) German and Polish.