- The US warns Russia against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine
- Fourth day of voting in referenda on joining Russia
- Ballot boxes carried from door to door, Ukraine says
- Heavy fighting continues along the front line
- Russians protest against military service
Kyiv, Sept 26 (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Monday refused to deny that Russia could close its borders to prevent an exodus of military-age men after President Vladimir Putin declared a partial mobilization to regain the upper hand in the war Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also confirmed that Russia is in “sporadic” contacts with the United States on nuclear issues, a day after Washington warned of “catastrophic consequences” if Moscow uses nuclear weapons to protect Ukrainian regions it threatens to annex.
Citizens in four regions of Ukraine voted in the fourth day of Moscow-organized referendums on joining Russia, a plan Kyiv and the West have branded a sham. They say the votes were rigged and they don’t recognize the results.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
When asked about possible border closures, Peskov told reporters, “I don’t know anything about it. No decisions have been made in this regard at the moment.”
Several reports have documented how people without military service have been given draft papers – contrary to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s pledge that only those with special military skills or combat experience would do so – prompting even loyal pro-Kremlin figures to publicly voice their concerns .
Peskov acknowledged that some convocations were made in error and said errors are being corrected by regional governors and the Defense Ministry.
More than 2,000 people have been arrested across Russia for protests against the draft, says independent monitoring group OVD-Info. Since criticism of the conflict was forbidden, the demonstrations were among the first signs of discontent since the beginning of the war.
A 25-year-old gunman was arrested after shooting at a military service office in Russia’s Irkutsk region on Monday, the local governor said.
Nearly 17,000 Russians crossed the border into Finland over the weekend, Finnish authorities said, while Russian state media said the estimated waiting time to enter Georgia reached 48 hours at one point on Sunday, with more than 3,000 vehicles waiting in line.
A senior lawmaker said Russian men of military age should not be allowed to travel abroad.
“Anyone of draft age should be barred from being banned from traveling abroad in the current situation,” Sergei Tsekov, a member of Russia’s upper house of the Federation Council, told RIA.
By including Ukraine’s four regions — Luhansk and Donetsk to the east, and Zaporizhia and Kherson to the south — Moscow will be able to portray Kiev’s efforts to retake them as attacks on Russia itself.
President Vladimir Putin last week announced his mobilization campaign, Russia’s first since World War II, and said Moscow stands ready to use nuclear weapons to defend any of its territories.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Sunday the United States would respond “firmly” to any Russian use of nuclear weapons without elaborating. He said Washington privately told Moscow “exactly what that would mean.”
Asked about Sullivan’s comments, Peskov said, “There are channels of dialogue at the right level, but they’re very sporadic in nature. At least they allow some emergency messages to be exchanged about each other’s positions.”
The Ukraine conflict has sparked the most serious confrontation between Moscow and Washington since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the superpowers came closest to nuclear war.
The exiled mayor of Russian-controlled Melitopol in the Zaporizhia region accused Russia of forcibly conscripting Ukrainian men into its armed forces in the occupied territories.
“Today the situation is critical: our residents are afraid, our residents are in a panic, they don’t know what will happen tomorrow and when they will actually take our people for recruitment,” said Mayor Ivan Fedorov.
Fedorov also condemned the referendums, which are due to end on Tuesday, as “fake and farce”.
“Voting is taking place in front of assault rifles, men with guns… People are being grabbed right on the street and forced to vote not just for themselves but for their entire family,” he said via video link from an undisclosed location.
The governor of Luhansk, another region that Moscow wants to annex, said Russian-backed officials carried ballot boxes from door to door, accompanied by security officials.
Residents’ names were noted if they did not vote properly or refused to cast a vote, Serhiy Gaidai said.
The four regions represent about 15% of Ukraine. Russian forces do not control all territory in these regions where fighting is still ongoing. They would add Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014 after a similar referendum there.
Ukrainian officials said on Monday that as heavy fighting continued, more than 40 cities had been hit by Russian shelling, mostly in south and south-eastern Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with his security chiefs on Monday to plan ways to counter Russia’s use of “new types of weapons” after Moscow stepped up attacks in the Odessa region using Iranian combat drones.
Russia has carried out at least five attacks on targets in the region using Shahed-136 unmanned drones in recent days, Odessa regional administration spokesman Serhiy Bratchuk said in a news conference.
One of the attacks hit an unidentified military target in the southern region in the early hours of Monday, he said.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Reuters bureaus; writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Angus MacSwan
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.