ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Russia escalated its military and political campaign Thursday to capture Ukrainian territory, rounding up Russian army reservists to fight, preparing votes expected to lead to the annexation of occupied areas and launching new deadly attacks.
Pro-Moscow authorities in four Russian-held regions of Ukraine plan voter referendums starting Friday on becoming part of Russia — a move that could expand the war and follows the Kremlin’s playbook from when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after a similar referendum. Most of the world considers the 2014 annexation of Crimea to have been illegal.
On the battlefield, Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged missile and artillery barrages as both sides refused to concede ground despite recent military setbacks for Moscow and the toll on the invaded country after almost seven months of war.
In Russia, anti-war activists who protested Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial troop mobilization said they would stage more demonstrations over the weekend.
Voting in the Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions of Ukraine is scheduled to last through Tuesday. Foreign leaders have called the votes illegitimate and nonbinding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said they were a “sham” and “noise” to distract the public.
In Luhansk, billboards reading “With Russia Forever” and “Our Choice-Russia” appeared on the streets, while volunteers distributed ribbons in the colors of the Russian national flag and posters reading, “Russia is the future. Participate in the referendum!”
Russian missile strikes in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia left one person dead and five wounded, Ukrainian officials said. Officials in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling killed at least six people.
While the hostilities continued, the two sides did manage to agree on a major prisoner swap. At the same time, Putin began calling up reserve troops to supplement his forces in Ukraine.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy of the Ukrainian president’s office, said a hotel in Zaporizhzhia was struck and rescuers were trying to free people trapped in rubble.
The governor of the mostly Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, said Russian forces had 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 Ukrainian shelling hit a covered market and a minibus. Overnight, one person was killed during Russian shelling in Nikopol, across the river from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, according to the Dnipropetrovsk regional governor.
Just hours before Thursday’s attacks, Ukrainian officials announced the exchange of 215 Ukrainian and foreign fighters — 200 of them for a single person, an ally of Putin’s. Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed that pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, was part of the swap.
Putin has repeatedly spoken about Medvedchuk as a victim of political repression. Media reports alleged that before Russia’s invasion, Medvedchuk was seen as a top candidate for leading a puppet government the Kremlin hoped to install in Ukraine.
Among the freed fighters were Ukrainian defenders of a steel plant in Mariupol during a long Russian siege, along with 10 foreigners, including five British citizens and two U.S. military veterans, who had fought with Ukrainian forces. Some of those freed had faced death sentences in Russian-occupied areas.
A video on the BBC news website Thursday showed two of the released British men, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, speaking inside a plane while en route home.
“We just want to let everyone know that we’re now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way home to our families,” Aslin said in the video, as Pinner added: “By the skin of our teeth.”
The non-profit Presidium Network, which is helping provide aid to Kyiv, said Aslin, Pinner and three other Britons were safely home and reunited with their families Thursday.
The continuation of Russian missile attacks and beginning of a partial mobilization of Russians into the armed forces suggested the Kremlin was seeking to dispel any notion of weakness or waning determination to achieve its wartime aims in light of recent battlefield losses and other setbacks that undercut the aura of Russian military might.
Putin’s order Wednesday of 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 were arrested in the anti-war demonstrations, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info. More protests were planned Saturday.
Video on Twitter from the Russian city of Neryungri showed men emerging from what appeared from a stadium that appeared to be in use as a military mobilization center. Before boarding 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 up to the window of one bus for a last look.
Putin’s partial call-up was short on details, so much so that the Russian military announced Thursday it had set up a call center to answer questions from individuals and organizations.
Concerns about a potentially wider draft sent some Russians scrambling to buy plane tickets to flee the country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the mobilization was needed because Russia was “de facto facing all of NATO,” a reference to the military aid and other support that alliance members have given 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 turning a blind eye to what’s happening in Ukraine because “every Russian is now going to be at risk of being drafted into this war.”
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser went further, offering concrete support to deserters. She told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that anyone who “courageously opposes Putin’s regime and therefore puts himself in the greatest danger” can apply for asylum in Germany.
Ratcheting up tensions, a senior Kremlin official on Thursday repeated Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory comes under attack.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said on his messaging app that strategic nuclear weapons are one of the options to safeguard Russian-controlled territories in eastern and southern Ukraine. The remark appeared to serve as a warning that Moscow could also target Ukraine’s Western allies.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded Thursday, calling on every U.N. Security Council member to “send a clear message” to Russia that it must stop its nuclear threats in the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s neighbors have been on edge about a possible threat from Russia. Estonia said training exercises started Thursday for nearly 2,900 reservists and volunteers, in an apparent counter to Moscow’s announcement of a partial military mobilization.
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