With Putin’s impending announcement, and fears that it could be accompanied by a declaration of martial law, the exodus of fighting-age Russian men trying to flee military mobilization appeared to be reaching critical levels, with worsening traffic jams and huge queues at border crossings.
The staged referendums, which are illegal under Ukrainian and international law, are due to end Tuesday and there is no doubt the outcome will be portrayed as showing overwhelmingly public support for joining Russia. However, Russia does not fully control any of the four regions, militarily or politically. In addition, many residents have been displaced by the war, and there have been many reports of civilians being forced to vote at gunpoint or under other forms of coercion.
“Russia’s leaders almost certainly hope that any accession announcement will be seen as a vindication of the ‘special military operation’ and will consolidate patriotic support for the conflict,” the British Defense Ministry said. It cautioned, however, that the chaos surrounding the “partial mobilization” that Putin declared last week would serve to undermine the Kremlin’s messaging about annexation.
Pro-Kremlin leaders of the separatist-controlled parts of Luhansk have already declared the referendum “accomplished” and said they plan to announce preliminary results on Tuesday evening.
In Russia, there are rising fears, particularly among fighting-age men, that once Ukrainian regions are absorbed, Putin will declare martial law, closing off the possibility of going abroad to escape conscription.
And with Putin’s expected announcement drawing close, there was growing disarray at major border crossings.
Authorities of the North Ossetia region bordering Georgia, which has been one of the main transit hubs for Russians fleeing military mobilization, said Tuesday that they were considering declaring a state of emergency as thousands of cars lined up to cross the Verkhniy Lars checkpoint.
“The influx is too big, and no one expected it to be this massive,” the head of the region, Sergey Menyailo, said in a live interview on a social media channel run by Vladimir Soloviev, the Russian television presenter and Kremlin propagandist.
“We can’t close the passage to the republic, so we are trying to introduce an electronic queue specifically for cars,” Menyailo said. “But the issue is very complicated, and most likely, I will decide to introduce a partial state of emergency,” he added.
The North Ossetia branch of the Interior Ministry said it would set up a makeshift enlistment office next to the crossing.
Human rights groups reported that some Russians have been turned back from border posts, citing decisions passed down from their local military commissariats banning departures from the country.
Georgia said it has bolstered the number of guards at the checkpoint but saw no reason to shut the border. Georgian Internal Affairs Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said that about 10,000 Russians are arriving in the country every day, almost double the number compared to Sept. 21, when the mobilization was announced.
In Kazakhstan, another neighboring country that permits visa-free entry for Russian passport-holders, residents of the border city of Uralsk refurbished a movie theater into a temporary shelter for arriving Russians who couldn’t find a hotel room or apartment to rent.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Tuesday that his country has an obligation to help the arriving Russians.
“In recent days, many people from Russia have been coming to us,” Tokayev said. “Most of them are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue.”
Underscoring a growing rift with the Kremlin over the invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakh leader also called for respect for territorial integrity, alluding to the annexation referendums. And he took an indirect swipe at Putin, who has been in power since 2000, saying that if just one person rules a country for years, “this does not do honor either to this country or its leader.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.