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Vote on so-called referendum likely to pave way for Russia to annex Ukrainian land

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Voting in so-called referendums in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine ended today. Results are trickling in from Russian state media, and unsurprisingly, they seem to overwhelmingly signal support for joining the Russian Federation. The voting was illegal under both Ukrainian and international law. There were wide reports of voter coercion. But still, this will likely pave the way for Russia to annex the land. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has been tracking all of this in Ukraine. Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey there.

SUMMERS: So, Kat, where in the country were you and what have you been hearing?

LONSDORF: Yeah. So I've spent the last few days in villages near the southern front lines, meaning we've been getting about as close to the occupied areas as we can get. I was in one village just earlier today called Tavriiske. It's southwest of the city of Zaporizhzhia. And I ran into one 28-year-old named Andreii Boyarskii. He told me his sister lives in an occupied village in the region, and he'd been getting texts from her. And she told him that Russian soldiers came to her door with guns and had her vote, and she voted yes. And I asked him, well, did she want to vote yes? And he got really animated.

ANDREII BOYARSKII: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: He told me, "she's Ukrainian, of course not." And it's not just her, he told me. It's everyone there in that village. No one wants this. But what are they supposed to do with a gun pointed at them? And then he told me this.

BOYARSKII: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: He says that his sister told him that her neighbors had tried to hide so that they didn't have to cast a ballot, but those same soldiers went and kicked down their door and forced them to vote.

SUMMERS: Wow. So, Kat, did you hear stories like that from other people, too?

LONSDORF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I've been talking to people for the last five days, basically since this voting started. And I've heard stories like that over and over again. You know, the exiled governor for the occupied city of Melitopol down south, he said that residents there had been threatened with deportation to Russia if they refused to vote, for example. So pretty much everything indicates that this voting was not free and not fair.

SUMMERS: So the result so far, as we mentioned, are not so surprising. But tell us more about what Russian state media reports say after five days of voting.

LONSDORF: Well, it's still preliminary, but the numbers are just pretty unbelievable. It's looking like in the high 90% range in favor of joining the Russian Federation in all four regions. And just to be clear, there is some pro-Russian sentiment for sure in these parts. You know, there are some people who voted yes willingly, probably. But a lot of people I talked to in the past few days in these areas said that those people were likely paid off or bribed with things like humanitarian aid.

SUMMERS: What else have you heard, Kat, from people in these villages that are right near the occupied areas?

LONSDORF: I had a lot of people tell me that they just didn't really care about the referendums. They knew they were fake, knew they were staged, and they were defiant. They basically said that Russia can't just take Ukrainian land, and they thought that the Ukrainian army would soon go in and win it back anyway. That said, this could have real implications kind of regardless. I talked to one group of neighbors today who were driving from a village right on the front line. That village is still under Ukrainian control, and lots and lots of shelling could be heard happening there today. One of the men, 48-year-old Henadee Kechan, told me that they've been going back and forth between their village and a safer city to see relatives and get things from their home.

HENADEE KECHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: And he told me that he worries that come next week, you know, after these referendum votes, that they won't be able to make that trip anymore, that it will all be completely blocked.

SUMMERS: So, Kat, what comes next?

LONSDORF: Well, the Kremlin hasn't said anything official, but I can tell you that in 2014, when a referendum like this happened in Crimea, annexation happened really soon after. So we probably will see something like that in the coming days.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine. Kat, thank you.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.