Russia launches fresh strikes on Ukraine as Kremlin-staged annexation vote continues

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces launched new strikes on Ukrainian cities Saturday as Kremlin-orchestrated votes continued in occupied regions of Ukraine to pave the way for their annexation by Moscow.

Zaporizhzhia Gov. Oleksandr Starukh said the Russians targeted infrastructure facilities in the Dnieper River city, and one of the missiles hit an apartment building, killing one person and injuring seven others.

The Russian forces also struck other areas in Ukraine, damaging residential buildings and civilian infrastructure.

The British Defense Ministry said that Russia was targeting the Pechenihy dam on the Seversky Donets River in northeastern Ukraine following previous strikes on a dam on a reservoir near Kryvyi Rih, causing flooding on the Inhulets River.

“Ukrainian forces are advancing further downstream along both rivers,” the British said. “As Russian commanders become increasingly concerned about their operational setbacks, they are probably attempting to strike the sluice gates of dams, in order to flood Ukrainian military crossing points.”

Amid the fighting, voting continued in Kremlin-organized referendums in occupied areas — votes that Ukraine and its Western allies dismissed as a sham with no legal force.

Two men pose for a photo in front of a motorcade organized to support voting in a referendum in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, September 23, 2022. (AP Photo)

In the five-day voting in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south that began Friday, 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 when balloting will be held at polling stations.

The voting was also held in Russia, where refugees and other residents of those regions cast ballots.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow will heed the residents’ will, a clear indication that the Kremlin is poised to quickly annex the regions once the voting is over.

Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to slice away a large part of the country, stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world considered illegal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting “this farce.” He called on residents to try to avoid Moscow’s mobilization announced Wednesday and sabotage the Russian army action if they are rounded up.

”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,” he said in his nightly address. “And at the first opportunity, switch to our positions.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that a partial mobilization ordered by Putin aimed to add about 300,000 troops, but the presidential decree keeps the door open for a broader call-up.

Demonstrators hold Russian state flags and flags with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military, and a hashtag reading “We don’t abandon our own” during a rally to support the referendum on annexing Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, on Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin and Red Square with the Historical Museum in the background in Moscow, Russia, September 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Across Russia’s 11 time zones, men hugged their weeping family members before being rounded up for service amid fears that a wider call-up might follow. Some media reports claimed that the Russian authorities actually plan to mobilize more than 1 million, the allegations denied by the Kremlin.

Protests against the mobilization that erupted Wednesday in Moscow, St. Petersburg and several other Russian cities were quickly dispersed by police, who arrested over 1,300 and immediately handed call-up summons to many of them. Anti-war activists are planning more protests Saturday.

Many Russian men tried desperately to leave the country, buying up scarce and exorbitantly priced plane tickets. Thousands others fled by car, creating lines of traffic hours or even days long at some borders. The lines of cars were so long at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their vehicles and walked — just as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country February 24.

In a bid to calm public fears over the call-up, the authorities announced that many of those working in high tech, communications or finance will be exempt.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya who sent his forces to fight in Ukraine and repeatedly called for tougher action, suggested that Moscow should more broadly engage personnel from law enforcement agencies in the fighting.

He denounced those fleeing the mobilization as cowards and suggested that police and various paramilitary agencies would make a much better-trained and motivated fighting force.

“Russia is a huge country with such vast resources that NATO and the West will grow tired of counting them,” Kadyrov said, noting that the combined strength of military and various law-enforcement and paramilitary agencies is about 5 million.

“If we leave 50 percent of the personnel to fulfill their duties, 2.5 million others will blow any Western army away and we won’t need any reservists,” Kadyrov said.