KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces launched new strikes on Ukrainian cities Saturday as Kremlin-orchestrated votes continued in occupied regions of Ukraine to pave the way for their annexation by Moscow.
Zaporizhzhia Gov. Oleksandr Starukh said the Russians targeted infrastructure facilities in the Dnieper River city, and one of the missiles hit an apartment building, killing one person and injuring seven others.
The Russian forces also struck other areas in Ukraine, damaging residential buildings and civilian infrastructure.
The British Defense Ministry said that Russia was targeting the Pechenihy dam on the Siverskyy Donets River in northeastern Ukraine following previous strikes on a dam on a reservoir near Kryvyi Rih, causing flooding on the Inhulets River.
“Ukrainian forces are advancing further downstream along both rivers,” the British said. “As Russian commanders become increasingly concerned about their operational setbacks, they are probably attempting to strike the sluice gates of dams, in order to flood Ukrainian military crossing points.”
Amid the fighting, voting continued in Kremlin-organized referendums in occupied areas — votes that Ukraine and its Western allies dismissed as a sham with no legal force.
In the five-day voting in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south that began Friday, election officials accompanied by police officers carried ballots to homes and set up mobile polling stations, citing safety reasons. The votes are set to wrap up Tuesday when balloting will be held at polling stations.
The voting was also was held in Russia, where refugees and other residents of those regions cast ballots.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow will heed the residents’ will, a clear indication that the Kremlin is poised to quickly annex the regions once the voting is over.
Ukraine and the West said the vote was an illegitimate attempt by Moscow to slice away a large part of the country, stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula. A similar referendum took place in Crimea in 2014 before Moscow annexed it, a move that most of the world considered illegal.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians in occupied regions to undermine the referendums and to share information about the people conducting “this farce” and called on residents to try to avoid Moscow’s mobilization announced Wednesday.
“Hide from the Russian mobilization by any means,” Zelenskyy said. “Avoid conscription letters. Try to get to the free territory of Ukraine.”
Those who still end up in the Russian military should try to sabotage it and desert when they can, the Ukrainian president added. “If you get into the Russian army, sabotage any activity of the enemy, hinder any Russian operations, provide us with any important information about the occupiers – their bases, headquarters, warehouses with ammunition,” Zelenskyy said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that a partial mobilization ordered by Putin aimed to add about 300,000 troops, but the presidential decree keeps the door open for a broader call-up.
Across Russa’s 11 time zones, men hugged their weeping family members before being rounded up for service amid fears that a wider call-up might follow. Some media reports claimed that the Russian authorities actually plan to mobilize more than 1 million, the allegations denied by the Kremlin.
Protests against the mobilization that erupted Wednesday in Moscow, St. Petersburg and several other Russian cities were quickly dispersed by police, who arrested over 1,300 and immediately handed call-up summons to many of them. Anti-war activists are planning more protests Saturday.
Many Russian men tried desperately to leave the country, buying up scarce and exorbitantly priced plane tickets. Thousands others fled by car, creating lines of traffic hours or even days long at some borders. The lines of cars were so long at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their vehicles and walked — just as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country Feb. 24.
The mobilization marked a sharp shift from Putin’s effort to cast the seven-month war as a “special military operation” that doesn’t intefere with the lives of most Russians. The massive exodus underlined the unpopularity of the war and fueled public outrage that could erode his grip on power.
Moving to assuage public fears over the call-up, the authorities announced that many of those working in high tech, communications or finance will be exempt.
And in a signal that the Kremlin was getting worried about the spreading panic and chaos caused by the mobilization, the head of a top state-controlled TV station harshly criticized military authorities for hastily sweeping up random people in a bid to meet mobilization targets instead of calling up people with military skills who had served recently, as Putin said.
RT chief Margarita Simonyan lashed out at military conscription offices for “driving people mad” by rounding up those who weren’t supposed to be drafted. “It’s as if they were tasked by Kyiv to do that,” she said.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya who sent his forces to fight in Ukraine and repeatedly called for tougher action, suggested that Moscow should more broadly engage personnel from law-enforcement agencies in the fighting.
He denounced those fleeing the mobilization as cowards and argued that police and various paramilitary agencies would make a much better-trained and motivated fighting force.
“Russia is a huge country with such vast resources that NATO and the West will grow tired of counting them,” Kadyrov said, noting that the combined strength of military and various law-enforcement and paramilitary agencies is about 5 million.
“If we leave 50 percent of the personnel to fulfil their duties, 2.5 million others will blow any Western army away and we won’t need any reservists,” Kadyrov said.
Putin’s mobilization order followed a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive that forced Moscow’s retreat from broad swaths of the northeastern Kharkiv region, a humiliating defeat that highlighted blunders in Rusisan military planning and shortage of troops.
The Defense Ministry on Saturday announced the dismissal of Gen. Dmitry Bulgakov from the post of deputy defense minister in charge of military logistics. It didn’t mention the cause for his ouster, but the move was widely seen as a punishment for the flaws in supporting operations in Ukraine.