Ukraine war: 'Referendums' continue, Lavrov blames the West, more threats of sanctions

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP, Reuters
Russian paratroopers are seen near the Mykolaiv-Kryvyi Rih area in Ukraine
Russian paratroopers are seen near the Mykolaiv-Kryvyi Rih area in Ukraine   -   Copyright  Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

1. Voting at gunpoint: 'Referendums' continue in occupied areas

Moscow-installed officials in occupied east Ukraine are continuing with a referendum on whether to join Russia. 

The voting process was described as "an opinion survey under the gun barrel" by a local Ukrainian official, adding that Moscow-backed local authorities sent armed escorts to accompany election officials and to take down the names of individuals who voted against joining Russia.

Election officials accompanied by police officers carried ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations, citing safety reasons. The votes are set to wrap up Tuesday.

Ukraine and its Western allies say the referendums underway in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south and the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions have no legal force. 

They alleged the votes were an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to seize Ukrainian territory stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting “this farce”. 

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2. Lavrov pledges Russia's 'full protection' of areas annexed by Moscow

Russia's top diplomat on Saturday said regions of Ukraine where widely-derided referendums are being held would be under Russia's "full protection" if they are annexed by Moscow, amid fears Russia could further escalate the conflict and even use nuclear weapons.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing the UN General Assembly and the world's media in New York, attempted to justify Russia's February invasion of its neighbour, repeating Moscow's false claims that the elected government in Kyiv was illegitimately installed, filled with "neo-Nazis" and oppressed Russian speakers in the country's east.

Russia on Friday launched referendums in four eastern Ukrainian regions aimed at annexing territory it has taken by force.

Kyiv said residents were being coerced into voting and were not allowed to leave the regions during the four-day vote, which Western nations dismissed as a sham designed to justify an escalation of the seven-month-old war.

"Following those referendums, Russia of course will respect the expression of the will of those people who for many long years have been suffering from the abuses of the neo-Nazi regime," Lavrov said at a news conference after he addressed the assembly.

Asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend annexed regions of Ukraine, Lavrov said Russian territory, including territory "further enshrined" in Russia's constitution in the future, "is under the full protection of the state."

"All of the laws, doctrines, concepts and strategies of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territory," he said, also referring specifically to Russia's doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons.

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3. Biden promises more sanctions if Russia annexes eastern areas

Joe Biden said the United States and its allies would impose "swift and severe" new economic sanctions on Russia if it annexes territory in Ukraine in "referendums" that continue Saturday.

"Russia's referendums are a sham, a false pretext for trying to annex parts of Ukraine by force," the US president said on Friday evening.

Earlier, in a joint statement, the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) had called on "all countries to unequivocally reject these sham referendums", "shams" that "have neither legal effect nor legitimacy".

On Friday evening, in his daily address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also denounced "pseudo-referendums".

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Russian draftees walk to take a bus to be sent further to the military units of the Eastern Military District, in Yakutsk, Russia, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.AP

4. Ukrainian army slowed down by onset of autumn, as winter threatens to freeze its progress

The onset of autumnal weather, with rains making fields too muddy for tanks, is beginning to cloud Ukraine's efforts to take back more Russian-held territory before winter freezes the battlefields, a Washington-based think tank said Sunday.

Russia, meanwhile, pressed on with its call-up of hundreds of thousands of men to throw into the seven-month war, seeking to reverse its recent losses. 

It also deployed suicide drones on Sunday against the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, Ukrainian authorities said. No casualties were immediately reported.

For Ukrainian and Russian military planners, the clock is ticking, with the approach of winter expected to make fighting more complicated. 

Already, rainy weather is bringing muddy conditions that are starting to limit the mobility of tanks and other heavy weaponry, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

But the think tank said Ukrainian forces are still gaining ground in their counteroffensive, launched in late August, that has spectacularly rolled back the Russian occupation across large areas of the northeast and which also prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin's new drive for reinforcements.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this week warned the assembly that he believes Moscow wants to spend the winter getting ready for a new offensive or at least preparing fortifications while mobilising more troops.

Regardless, he declared that his forces would ultimately oust Russian troops from all of Ukraine.

“We can do it with the force of arms. But we need time,” said Zelenskyy, the only leader who was allowed to address the assembly by video this year.

5. New penalties for dodging Russian mobilisation calls

The Kremlin has toughened penalties for anyone who refuses orders to mobilise to the military. 

On Saturday, President Putin signed amendments which include up to 10 years in prison for military personnel who desert or refuse to fight during mobilisation.

He also signed a law that facilitates access to Russian citizenship for foreigners who join the army for at least a year, at a time when Moscow is looking for all means to recruit more men to fight in Ukraine.

The Russian Defence Ministry shared videos on Saturday of reservists joining the mobilisation effort announced by President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.

The ministry released footage of men arriving at a recruitment office in Vladivostok in Russia's far east.

After their paperwork was taken care of, they received their uniforms, with some seen receiving rifles.

Around 300,000 reservists are expected to be called up in the partial mobilisation to join the war in Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Russian recruits to sabotage and desert the military if they are called up under what Putin announced Wednesday.

“If you get into the Russian army, sabotage any activity of the enemy, hinder any Russian operations, provide us with any important information about the occupiers -- their bases, headquarters, warehouses with ammunition,” Zelenskyy said.

Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
A group of Sri Lankan students who say they were captured & abused by Russians, attend a press conference in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

6. Sri Lankans describe abuse as Russian captives in Ukraine

A group of Sri Lankans held captive by Russian forces in an agricultural factory in eastern Ukraine said Saturday that they were beaten and abused for months before escaping on foot as the Russians withdrew from the Kharkiv region this month.

Recounting their ordeal to reporters in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, one of the seven Sri Lankans said he was shot in the foot; another had his toenail ripped off and was slammed in the head with the butt of a rifle.

Ukrainian officials described their treatment as torture.

“Every day we were cleaning toilets and bathrooms,” Dilukshan Robertclive, one of the former captives, said. “Some days Russians came and beat our people, our Sri Lanka people.”

Four of the seven were medical students in the city of Kupiansk, and three were working there when Russian forces poured across the border in late February and occupied large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine.

The group said they were captured at the first checkpoint out of Kupiansk and then taken to Vovchansk, near the border with Russia, where they were held in the factory with around 20 Ukrainians.

“They took our passports, other documents, phones, clothes, and locked us up in a room," said Sharujan Gianeswaran, speaking in Tamil to an AP journalist by phone. 

"There were also Ukrainian people with us, and they were questioned and sent away in 10 days, 15 days or one month. With us they never spoke, because they could not understand our language.”

Police said the factory housed a Russian “torture centre” — one of 18 in the Kharkiv region.

“They were bound and blindfolded. After that they were captured and then taken to the city of Vovchansk,” said Serhiy Bolvinov, head of the investigative department of the National Police in Kharkiv.