ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Russia on Thursday intensified its military and political campaign to seize Ukrainian territory, rallying Russian army reservists to fight, preparing votes that should lead to the annexation of occupied areas and launching new deadly attacks.
Pro-Moscow authorities in four Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine are planning voter referendums starting Friday on Russian integration – a move that could expand the war and has been on the Kremlin’s playbook ever since. he annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine after a similar referendum. Most of the world regards the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as illegal.
On the battlefield, Russian and Ukrainian forces traded barrages of missiles and artillery as both sides refused to cede ground despite Moscow’s recent military setbacks and the country’s record overrun after nearly seven months of war.
In Russia, anti-war activists who demonstrated on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of troops said they would stage further demonstrations over the weekend.
Voting in the Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions of Ukraine is expected to last until Tuesday. Foreign leaders called the votes illegitimate and non-binding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was a “sham” and “noise” to distract the public.
In Lugansk, billboards reading “With Russia forever” and “Our choice – Russia” appeared in the streets, while volunteers handed out ribbons in the colors of the Russian national flag and posters reading “The Russia is the future”. Take part in the referendum!
Russian missile strikes in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia left one dead and five injured, Ukrainian officials said. Officials in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling killed at least six people.
As hostilities continued, the two sides managed to agree on a major prisoner exchange. At the same time, Putin began calling up reserve troops to supplement his forces in Ukraine.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy in the Ukrainian president’s office, said a hotel in Zaporizhzhia was hit and rescuers were trying to free people trapped in the rubble.
The governor of the mostly Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, said Russian forces targeted infrastructure and damaged apartment buildings in the city, which remains in Ukrainian hands.
The mayor of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, Alexei Kulemzin, said the Ukrainian shelling hit a covered market and a minibus. Overnight, one person was killed in a Russian shelling in Nikopol, across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, according to the Dnipropetrovsk regional governor.
Hours before Thursday’s attacks, Ukrainian officials announced the exchange of 215 Ukrainian and foreign fighters, including 200 for one person, an ally of Putin. Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed that pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk was part of the exchange.
Putin repeatedly spoke of Medvedchuk as a victim of political repression. The media alleged that before the Russian invasion, Medvedchuk was considered one of the best candidates to lead a puppet government that the Kremlin hoped to install in Ukraine.
Among the freed fighters were Ukrainian defenders of a steel mill in Mariupol during a long Russian siege, as well as 10 foreigners, including five British citizens and two American military veterans, who had fought with Ukrainian forces. Some of those freed had been sentenced to death in Russian-occupied areas.
Video on the BBC news site on Thursday showed two of the freed British men, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, talking inside a plane as they returned home.
“We just want to let everyone know that we are now out of the danger zone and on our way back to our families,” Aslin said in the video, while Pinner added, “By the skin of our teeth.”
The nonprofit Presidium Network, which helps deliver aid to Kyiv, said Aslin, Pinner and three other Britons returned home safely and were reunited with their families on Thursday.
The continuation of Russian missile attacks and the beginning of a partial mobilization of Russians into the armed forces suggested that the Kremlin was seeking to dispel any notion of weakness or waning determination to achieve its war aims in light of recent losses on the battlefield and other aura-sapping setbacks. of Russian military power.
Putin’s order on Wednesday for a partial mobilization of reservists to bolster his forces in Ukraine sparked rare protests in dozens of Russian cities and was derided in the West as an act of weakness and desperation. More than 1,300 Russians have been arrested during the protests against the war, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info. More protests were planned for Saturday.
Video on Twitter from the Russian town of Neryungri showed men emerging from what appeared to be a stadium that appeared to be used as a military mobilization center. Before boarding the buses, the men hugged family members waiting outside, many crying and some covering their mouths with their hands in grief.
A man held a child to a bus window for a last look.
Putin’s partial appeal lacked detail, so much so that the Russian military announced on Thursday that it had set up a call center to answer questions from individuals and organizations.
Concerns about a potentially larger project have some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets to flee the country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the mobilization was necessary because Russia was “de facto facing the whole of NATO”, a reference to military aid and other support that members of the alliance have brought to Ukraine.
Speaking in New York on Thursday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock praised Russian anti-war protesters and added that no one inside the country can continue to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Ukraine, because “every Russian now risks being drafted into this war.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser went further by offering concrete support to deserters. She told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that anyone who “bravely opposes Putin’s regime and therefore puts himself in the greatest danger” can apply for asylum in Germany.
Raising tensions, a senior Kremlin official on Thursday repeated Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory was attacked.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said on his messaging app that strategic nuclear weapons are one of the options to protect Russian-held territories in eastern and southern Ukraine. The remark appeared to serve as a warning that Moscow could also target Ukraine’s Western allies.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacted on Thursday, calling on every member of the UN Security Council to “send a clear message” to Russia to end its nuclear threats in the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s neighbors are worried about a possible Russian threat. Estonia said training exercises began on Thursday for nearly 2,900 reservists and volunteers, appearing to contradict Moscow’s announcement of a partial military mobilization.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine