As four occupied regions of Ukraine began holding controversial referendums on whether to join Russia on Friday, Russian men continued to flee the country as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s plans to raise more troops to bolster his faltering invasion of his smaller neighbor.
The voting in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions has already been condemned as a sham by Kyiv and its Western allies, including the United States.
Friday was the first day of a five-day period of voting in the regions after their Russian-installed officials rushed to announce the referendums earlier this week.
The Russian state news agency Tass reported that for "safety reasons," election officials would take ballots to people’s homes. Voting at actual polling stations would only take place on the last day. It said polling stations have also been set up inside Russia for Ukrainian residents who had evacuated there.
The questions on the ballots will ask voters if their regions should join Russia, the news agency said, adding there was no mention of an option to stay as part of Ukraine.
The balloting will wrap up Tuesday, but the outcome is almost guaranteed to go Moscow’s way. The U.S. and its Western allies have said it's likely Russia will manipulate the results and use them as a pretext to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory.
Moscow-backed officials in the occupied areas celebrated the election. Denis Pushilin, Moscow-backed separatist leader in Donetsk, called the referendum “a historical milestone” in a video recording Friday, adding: “We are coming home.”
The rush to hold the referendums is widely seen as Putin's attempt to maintain control of the occupied regions amid Ukraine’s battlefield successes and a lightning counteroffensive in the northeast earlier this month.
If the regions vote to join Russia, Moscow is likely to claim them as part of its territory. Putin warned this week that he could resort to using nuclear weapons should Russia’s territorial integrity be threatened, which could mean that any Ukrainian effort to retake the annexed regions could precipitate a nuclear confrontation.
As the voting started on Friday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow would consider any Ukrainian attempts to return the regions that are holding the referendums as an attack on Russia, if they vote to join the country, Tass quoted him as saying.
Meanwhile, Russian media reported clogged-up airports as flights into neighboring countries were sold out in the wake of Putin's order for partial mobilization to boost up his troops in Ukraine. With few details laid out in the order, men of fighting age were left with more questions than answers about who exactly could be recruited to serve in Ukraine.
Long lines were building up at Russia’s land borders with neighboring Finland, Reuters reported, citing Finnish officials. Finnish land border crossings are among the few entry points into Europe for Russians after many Western countries barred their entry after the Feb. 24 invasion. In contrast, Germany’s interior minister said Thursday that the country may consider taking in Russians fleeing conscription.
“Putin’s contempt for humanity does not stop at his own soldiers, whom he is sending into this murderous war against the Ukrainian civilian population,” Nancy Faeser tweeted. “Deserters threatened by severe repression therefore usually receive international protection in Germany.”
After the mobilization was announced Wednesday, videos began circulating on Russian social media sites showing tearful goodbyes as men were told to report for duty. NBC News was able to verify one video showing women and children weeping as they hugged men boarding buses at what appeared to be a mobilization point in Russia’s far eastern region of Sakha.
Another video verified by NBC News showed what appears to be a military recruiter arguing with about a dozen men about the mobilization effort in the Babayurtovsky district of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan.
Some men in the crowd can be heard saying they are not willing to fight in a war that’s about “politics.”
While Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sought to reassure the Russian public that only a limited group of people with military experience and specialists would be recruited in the mobilization, many took to social media with concerns about whether the government would stay true to its word. Many messages used the word "mogilization," an amalgamation using the Russian word "mogila," which stands for "grave."
On Friday, the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called the mobilization "criminal."
Some lawyers shared detailed guides online on how to avoid the mobilization and what to do if someone is called up but doesn’t want to serve.
The Kremlin dismissed reports of Russian men fleeing the mobilization as “exaggerated,” and the Russian defense ministry said Thursday that some 10,000 volunteers have already turned up to enlist without waiting to be called up. Putin’s order seeks to recruit some 300,000 additional troops.
The order comes as his military campaign in Ukraine is struggling. Many foreign leaders have decried it as an act of desperation as his troops have been left demoralized and depleted by humiliating setbacks and logistical challenges. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday it was a sign that the war, which previously appeared distant, has now “entered every Russian home.”