Ukrainian servicemen conduct work on the site of a destroyed market in Kostiantynivka, Ukraine, that was the result of a Russian missile strike on Wednesday. Russia on Friday began elections in four illegally occupied regions of Ukraine. File Photo by Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 8 (UPI) -- In the face of international condemnation, Russia on Friday began to hold local elections in regions of occupied Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin declared annexed nearly a year ago and that Moscow has yet to gain control over amid its ongoing war.
Eleven months ago, Putin signed federal laws formally approving the illegal annexation of Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson, and on Friday elections in those regions began for Kremlin-installed legislative assemblies as more than 4,000 local and regional elections were being held over the weekend across Russia.
Polling stations opened Friday morning and will close Sunday night, according to Russian state-run TASS news agency, which said elections in the four regions of Ukraine were to seat deputies in their legislative assemblies.
The elections are expected to be widely condemned as Putin's declaration of annexation nearly a year ago was overwhelmingly rejected at the United Nations by nearly 150 countries.
Russia has pointed to referendum it held a month prior to Putin's signing of the declarations as proof that the Ukrainians in the four regions wish to join the Russian federation.
But the United States had long warned prior to and after the referendums were held that they were shams, as would be any elections that would follow.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken renewed his accusations that Russia was conducting "sham elections" a year after it staged "sham referenda" to support its illegal usurping of Ukrainian land.
"The Kremlin hopes these predetermined, fabricated results will strengthen Russia's illegitimate claims to the parts of Ukraine it occupies, but this is nothing more than a propaganda exercise," Blinken said in a statement, warning those who support it will be at risk of sanctions and visa restrictions.
"The United States will never recognize the Russian Federation's claims to any of Ukraine's sovereign territory."
The Russian Embassy in Washington characterized Blinken's statement in one of its own on Friday as meddling in its internal affairs, while pointing to the widely discredited referendums as proof that Ukrainians in those regions wanted to join Russia.
On Sunday, the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization, also condemned the elections.
"It constitutes a flagrant violation of international law, which Russia continues to disregard, as it was the case with the pseudo-referendums last year," it said in a statement.
"Holding local elections in occupied territories only creates an illusion of democracy but clearly violates the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of local public affairs."
Kyiv's Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security of Ukraine is warning that the number of voters, turnout and results in the election are expected to be falsified.
"Russia's pseudo-elections are accompanied by terror against the occupied population, who are forced to play a part in this propaganda show. Any declared pseudo-election results are void. They will not be recognized by anyone," it said in a statement.
"Ukraine will eventually free its citizens from Russia. We remember everyone in occupied territories. All those responsible for terror will be held accountable."
Ukrainian demonstrators rally in Kyiv on February 12, 2022 to show unity amid U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. Photo by Oleksandr Khomenko/UPI | License Photo