Heavy fighting as the vote on annexation in Ukraine entered the last day

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  • Heavy fighting with the entry of the Russian referendums last day
  • Russian conscription sparks protests and mass displacement
  • The Kremlin says no decisions have been made on closing Russia’s borders

Kyiv, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian and Russian forces fought fierce fighting in different parts of Ukraine on Tuesday, as referendums organized by Russia in four regions Moscow hopes to annex neared.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Donetsk region in the east remains a top strategic priority for his country – and Russia – as fighting rages in several towns as Russian forces try to advance south and west.

Clashes also took place in the northeastern Kharkiv region – the focus of Ukraine’s counter-offensive this month. Ukrainian forces continued a campaign to put down four bridges and other river crossings to disrupt the supply lines of Russian forces in the south.

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The Southern Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said, on Tuesday, that its counterattack in Kherson resulted in enemy losses amounting to 77 soldiers, six tanks, five howitzers, three anti-aircraft installations and 14 armored vehicles.

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the battlefield reports.

Moscow hopes to annex the eastern and southern provinces of Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya, which make up about 15 percent of Ukraine.

None of the provinces are fully under Moscow’s control, and fighting continues along the entire front line, with Ukrainian forces reporting further advances since they defeated Russian forces in a fifth province, Kharkiv, earlier this month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory, which would include the four provinces if annexed.

The vote on joining Russia began on Friday in the regions and is set to end on Tuesday, with the Russian parliament likely to approve the annexation within days.

Kyiv and the West dismissed the referendums as sham and vowed not to recognize the results.

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In Russia, the call-up of about 300,000 reservists led to the first sustained protests since the invasion began, with one monitoring group estimating that at least 2,000 people have been arrested so far. Any public criticism of Russia’s “special military operation” was prohibited.

Flight tickets outside Russia were sold out and cars closed at border checkpoints, with reports of a 48-hour queue at the border of the only road to Georgia, the rare pro-Western neighbor that allows Russian citizens visa-free entry.

Asked about the possibility of closing the border, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday: “I don’t know anything about this. At the moment, no decisions have been made on this.”

Russia counts millions of former conscripts as official reservists. The authorities did not specify who would be summoned, because this part of Putin’s orders is confidential.

The mobilization also saw the first sustained criticism of the authorities in the state-controlled media since the war began.

But Sergei Tsikov, a prominent lawmaker representing Russia-annexed Crimea in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, told RIA: “Everyone of military age should be prevented from traveling abroad in the current situation.”

Two exiled news websites – Medusa and Novaya Gazeta Europe – reported that authorities were planning to prevent the men from leaving, citing unidentified officials.

Moscow says it wants to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Kyiv and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unjustified war of aggression.

Late Monday, Zelensky described the military situation in Donetsk as “particularly dangerous.”

“We are doing our best to contain the enemy’s activity. This is our No. 1 goal at the moment because Donbass is still the number one target of the occupiers,” he said, referring to the broader region that includes Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia has carried out at least five attacks on targets in the Odessa region using Iranian drones in the past few days, according to the regional administration.

Dnipropetrovsk region governor Valentin Reznichenko said in a Telegram that Russian missiles hit the airport in Kryvyi Rih, Zelensky’s hometown in central Ukraine, destroying infrastructure and rendering the airport unusable.

More US funding appears to be on its way as negotiators for the Temporary Spending Act in Congress have agreed to include nearly $12 billion in new military and economic aid to Ukraine, according to the sources. Read more

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Reporting by Reuters offices. Written by Michael Perry and Costas Petsas; Edited by Shree Navaratnam

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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