Russia starts referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine

STORY: Russia launched referendums in four occupied areas of Ukraine on Friday (September 23) aimed at annexing the areas, which cover about 15% of Ukrainian territory.

The West says the move is a gross violation of international law that significantly escalates the war.

After nearly seven months of war, and a critical battlefield defeat in northeastern Ukraine earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin signalled he will annexe the regions if the people in the Russian-controlled areas vote to join Russia.

By incorporating the areas into Russia, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, uploaded this video on messaging app Telegram after casting his ballot:

"The thrill and the assurance that what we have been fighting for, for so long, is coming true. We're returning home, we're returning to mighty Russia."

The votes in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia began on Friday and will end on Tuesday, with results expected soon afterwards.

Outcomes that support joining Russia are almost certain.

Just like a swiftly choreographed legal annexation along the lines of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which took just days.

In Zaporizhzhia, internally displaced Ukrainians, like Tatiana, slammed Russia's plans to hold referendums.

"I am against the referendum. I think that my town and my region fully belong to Ukraine. This is all very hard and I reckon that there is no place for Russians on our land."

It is unclear exactly how the votes will work in a war zone when so many people have been displaced.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Russian-installed officials in the regions were setting targets for invented voter turnouts and approval rates, with some turnout figures already agreed.

Serhiy Gaidai, Ukraine's Luhansk region governor, said that in the town of Starobilsk, Russian authorities banned the population from leaving the city until Tuesday. And armed groups had been sent to search homes and coerce people to get out to take part in the referendum.

Russia maintains that the referendums offer an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.

Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and will fight until the last Russian soldier is ejected.