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Controversial referendums on whether Moscow-held regions of Ukraine should join Russia began on Friday, according to Russian-backed officials.

The referendums ask if certain Ukrainians want their regions to be part of Russia. The votes, which are expected to lean in favor of Russia, have been denounced by Ukrainians and Westerners alike, who accuse it of being an illegal step towards annexation.

The referendums concern four occupied territories and will likely be used by the Kremlin to justify annexing the Ukrainian territories and thus escalate the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The votes are being held in the Luhansk, Kherson and partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.

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People walk in a street with a billboard that reads: “Our choice – Russia”, prior to a referendum in Luhansk, Luhansk People’s Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Sept. 22, 2022.

In the first few days, residents will have ballots brought to them by election officials, who will also set up makeshift polling stations. The Russian-installed officials cited “safety reasons” for their voting processes.

Residents will be invited to vote at regular poll sites next Tuesday, which is the last day of the referendums.

If the votes go in Russia’s favor, it would provide the Kremlin pretext to say Ukrainian forces are attacking Russia directly by attempting to regain control of the disputed regions. 

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A military vehicle drives along a street with a billboard reading “With Russia forever, September 27” prior to a referendum in Luhansk, Luhansk People’s Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
(AP Photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referenced “sham referenda” in one of his nightly addresses, when he also called Russian citizens “accomplices in all these crimes”.

“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” the Ukrainian president said in Russian. “Because you were silent. Because you are silent. And now it’s time for you to choose”

“For men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become a cripple or to preserve health,” Zelenskyy added. “For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referenced "sham referenda" in a speech denouncing the Russian government.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referenced “sham referenda” in a speech denouncing the Russian government.
(Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

As voting began on Friday, Russian social media sites were reportedly flooded with emotional scenes of families bidding farewell to men departing for the military draft, according to the Associated Press.

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The referendum votes will conclude on September 27.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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