Russian forces have stepped up their bombardment of Ukrainian cities as voting entered a third day in referendums in four provinces of eastern and southern Ukraine on joining Russia.
The southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia was hit by 10 Russian rockets late on Saturday, damaging buildings and an electricity substation, but nobody was reported to have been killed, regional officials said. The nearby city of Nikopol and surrounding villages were pounded with rockets and shells.
The south-western port city of Odesa was attacked by three exploding drones, or “loitering munitions”, on Sunday, officials said. They were reported to be Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, supplied by Iran, which have given Moscow a new long-range strike capability.
Russia has lost several fighter jets in recent days, suggesting an uptick in sorties by its air force despite the risks from Ukrainian air defences and portable anti-aircraft missiles. Ukraine said it shot down four Russian jets on Saturday alone. Its claim could not be verified independently.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian-appointed administrators in the four occupied provinces of orchestrating fraudulent referendums, claiming residents have been forced to vote at gunpoint while public employees have been threatened with losing their jobs unless they take part.
Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk province, said on his Telegram channel that men in Luhansk were being given a choice: refuse to vote and face immediate detention, or take part and be issued with a Russian passport, which would make them liable to be conscripted.
He said occupation officials had claimed turnout of up to 46 per cent in some towns in Luhansk, areas which had been almost emptied of people by the fighting.
Voting ends on Tuesday and Moscow could proclaim the four provinces as formally part of the Russian Federation within days.
Speaking at the UN general assembly in New York on Saturday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the new territories would be afforded “full protection” by Moscow if incorporated into Russia.
Ukraine and its western allies say Moscow has orchestrated the referendums to justify its escalation of the conflict and the first mobilisation of civilians since the second world war.
In his nightly televised address, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Russians to refuse conscription into the army but promised to treat Russian troops fairly if they surrendered on the battlefield.
Speaking in Russian, Zelenskyy said that any of Moscow’s troops who surrendered “will be treated in a civilised manner in accordance with all conventions”.
“The key moment has come for you: right now it is being decided whether your life will end or not,” he said.
“It is better not to take a conscription letter than to die in a foreign land as a war criminal. It is better to run away from criminal mobilisation than to be crippled and then bear responsibility in the court for participating in the war of aggression.”
Russian men have fled the country in their thousands since the partial mobilisation order was announced on Wednesday, with long queues of vehicles forming at border crossings with Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia throughout the weekend.