KYIV - Russia launched referendums on Friday aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, raising the stakes of the seven-month-old war in what Kyiv called a sham that saw residents threatened with punishment if they did not vote.

Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was over, armed groups were going to homes to force people to cast ballots, and employees were threatened with the sack if they did not participate.

"Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors," said Yuriy Sobolevsky, the displaced first deputy council chairman of Kherson region.

The votes on becoming part of Russia were hastily-organised after Ukraine earlier this month recaptured large swathes of the northeast in a counter-offensive.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin also announcing a military draft this week to enlist 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine, the Kremlin appears to be trying to regain the upper hand in the grinding conflict since its Feb. 24 invasion.

By incorporating the four areas, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself - potentially using that to justify even a nuclear response.

Putin and other Russian officials have mentioned nuclear weapons as an option in extremis: a terrifying prospect in a war that has already killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions and pummelled the global economy.

Voting in the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the east and southeast, representing about 15% of Ukrainian territory, was due to run from Friday to Tuesday.

Polling stations were also set up in Moscow, for residents of those regions now living in Russia.


Serhiy Gaidai, Ukraine's Luhansk governor, said that in the town of Starobilsk, the population was banned from leaving and people were being forced out of homes to vote.

In the town of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees voting was compulsory and anyone refusing to take part would be fired and their names given to security services, he added.

Calling the event "elections without elections," Gaidai said people were being forced to fill out "pieces of paper" without privacy in kitchens and yards, with towns sealed off.

"The mood of the Russians is panicky because they were not ready to carry out so quickly this so-called referendum, there is no support, there's not enough people," Kherson's Sobolevsky said on messaging app Telegram.

Reuters could not immediately verify reports of coercion.

Ukraine, Western leaders and the United Nations condemned the votes as an illegitimate precursor to illegal annexation. There are no independent observers, and much of the pre-war population has fled.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, said the outcomes would have no legal bearing as they do not conform with Ukraine law or international standards and the areas are not secure.

Moscow maintains that the referendums offer an opportunity for people in the region to express their view.

"Voting has started in the referendum on Zaporizhzhia region becoming a part of Russia as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation! We are coming home!" said Vladimir Rogov, an official in the region's Russian-installed administration.

That administration said two cars with "Ukrainian saboteurs" had entered the area and were being "dealt with", Russia's TASS news agency reported. Reuters was unable to verify the report.


Ukraine says it will never accept Russian territorial takeovers.

"It's all nonsense, bluff and political manipulation to frighten us and the Western countries with their nuclear stuff," said Oleksandr Yaroshenko, 65, a resident in the capital Kyiv.

Russia previously used a referendum as a pretext for annexation in Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognised.

Putin maintains Russia is carrying out a "special military operation" to demilitarise Ukraine, rid it of dangerous nationalists and defend Russia from transatlantic alliance NATO.

Kyiv and the West say the war is an unprovoked, imperialist bid to reconquer a country that shook off Russian domination with the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

A U.N.-mandated investigation commission said it had found evidence of war crimes including executions, rape, torture and confinement of children in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, after visits to 27 areas and interviews with over 150 victims and witnesses.

"If left unanswered, (Russia's violations) will drag us into a dark world of impunity and permissiveness," Ukraine's envoy Anton Korynevych told the U.N. rights council.

Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians in the conflict and says abuse accusations are a smear campaign.

On the battlefield, Ukraine said one person was killed and a building damaged in Odessa port in an attack by "kamikaze drones". An Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, designed to slam into its targets, was destroyed over the Black Sea by air defences, it said.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)