© Reuters Ukrainian service members sit on armored fighting vehicles in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, September 24, 2022, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
(Reuters) – Clashes in southern Ukraine subsided late on Saturday, even as Russia moved to escalate the conflict by joining forces in the eastern and southern regions of its seven-month-old war.
Ukraine and Western countries say the referendum on joining Russia in the Russian-held territories is a sham designed to ensure they are stuck with newly trained troops after the battlefield devastation in recent weeks.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly and the world media on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned Russia’s aggression against its neighbors only by the United States and its subordinate countries.
Nearly three-quarters of countries at the summit called for sanctions against Russia and the withdrawal of its troops after the February 24 invasion, which Russia calls a special military operation.
Russia’s military campaign has killed tens of thousands of people, laid waste to some Ukrainian cities and sparked Russia’s biggest conflict with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ukraine and Russia have claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack in Ukraine’s Zaporizhia region.
The head of the region Oleksandr Staruk said on Telegram that the Russian military launched a massive missile attack on the region from about 10 aircraft, injuring at least three people.
Citing anonymous sources, Russia’s RIA state news agency said Ukrainian forces had shelled grain and fertilizer warehouses in the region.
Reuters could not verify either side’s claims.
The vote to join Russia was hastily organized after Ukraine seized large swathes of its northeast in a counter-offensive this month.
Ukrainian officials say people are barred from leaving some reservations until the end of the four-day vote, armed groups are entering homes, and workers will be fired if they don’t participate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the votes were unequivocally condemned internationally, in line with Russia’s crackdown this week, including Crimea and other Russian-held areas of Ukraine.
Russia says the referendum will give people in those regions a chance to express their views.
Lavrov told a press conference following his speech at the summit in New York that the regions where the vote is being held would be under Moscow’s “full protection” if annexed by Russia.
Asked if Russia would have a reason to use nuclear weapons to defend the annexed regions of Ukraine, Lavrov said that Russian territory, including territory “further provided for” in the Russian constitution, is “under the full protection of the government.”
“All laws, doctrines, concepts and tactics of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territory,” he said, specifically referring to Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons.
The Group of Seven industrialized economies announced that they would not recognize the election results.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Russia’s statement on the possibility of using nuclear weapons is absolutely unacceptable and Kyiv will not surrender to them.
“We call on all nuclear powers to speak up now and make it clear to Russia that such talk endangers the world and will not be tolerated,” Kuleba said.
Ukraine has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the referendum, accusing Russia of violating the UN Charter by trying to change Ukraine’s borders, Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter (NYSE: ).
Putin on Wednesday ordered the first crackdown since World War II, sending some Russian men rushing to the borders, curbing traffic at the Finnish and Georgian border crossings and raising the price of Moscow rocket air tickets.
More than 2,000 people have been arrested across Russia for protesting the draft, with 798 arrested in 33 cities on Saturday, according to the independent monitoring group Ovid-Info.
Frustration has also spread to the pro-Kremlin, with an editor at the state-run RT news channel complaining that problems such as subpoenas being sent to the wrong people “make people angry”.
Asked on Saturday why so many Russians are leaving the country, Lavrov pointed to the right to move.