Ukraine and Russia traded accusations on Sunday of attacks on civilians in southern Ukraine as Russia sought to justify its seven-month war, even as it escalates with reinforcements and the expected annexation of regions its troops have seized.
Ukraine and Western countries say referendums on joining Russia in territories Russia has captured are a sham designed to justify their annexation and the ramping up of hostilities with newly drafted troops after recent battlefield losses.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the United Nations General Assembly and the world’s media on Saturday, casting opposition to Russia’s assault on its neighbour as limited to the United States and countries under its sway.
Nearly three-quarters of countries in the assembly voted to reprimand Russia and demand it withdraw its troops shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion that Russia calls a special military operation.
Russia’s military campaign has killed tens of thousands, left some Ukrainian cities wastelands and triggered Russia’s biggest confrontation with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ukraine’s military said early on Sunday that Russian forces had launched dozens of missile attacks and air strikes on military and civilian targets, including 35 “settlements”, in the past 24 hours. Russia also used drones to attack the centre of the southern city of Odesa, Ukraine’s military said.
No casualties were reported. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Its RIA state news agency reported that Ukrainian forces bombed a hotel in the city of Kherson, killing two people. Russian forces have occupied the southern city since the early days of the invasion.
There has been no immediate response from Ukraine. Reuters could not verify either side’s claims.
The votes on becoming part of Russia were hastily organised after Ukraine recaptured large swathes of the northeast in a counteroffensive this month.
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was over, armed groups were going into homes, and employees were threatened with the sack if they did not participate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the votes would be “unequivocally condemned” by the world, along with the mobilisation Russia began this week, including in Crimea and other areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia. Russia maintains that the referendums offer an opportunity for people in those regions to express their view.
Lavrov, in a news conference following his speech to the assembly in New York, said the regions where votes are underway would be under Moscow’s “full protection” if they are annexed by Russia.
Asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend annexed regions of Ukraine, Lavrov said Russian territory, including territory “further enshrined” in Russia’s constitution in the future, “is under the full protection of the state”.
“All of the laws, doctrines, concepts and strategies of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territory,” he said, also referring specifically to Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons.
The Group of Seven industrialized economies have said they will not recognise the results of the votes.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Russia’s statements on the possible use of nuclear weapons were “absolutely unacceptable” and Kyiv would not give into them.
“We call on all nuclear powers to speak out now and make it clear to Russia that such rhetoric put the world at risk and will not be tolerated,” Kuleba said.
Ukraine has requested an urgent UN Security Council meeting over the referendums, accusing Russia of violating the UN Charter by attempting to change Ukraine’s borders, foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.
Putin on Wednesday ordered the first mobilization since World War Two, sending some Russian men swiftly toward borders, with traffic at frontier crossings with Finland and Georgia surging and prices for air tickets from Moscow rocketing.
More than 2,000 people have been detained across Russia for protesting the draft, including 798 people in 33 towns on Saturday, according to independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
Frustration has even spread to pro-Kremlin media, with one editor at the state-run RT news channel complaining that problems like call-up papers being sent to the wrong men were “infuriating people”.
When asked on Saturday why so many Russians were leaving the country, Lavrov pointed to the right of freedom of movement.
British military intelligence reported that a Russian nationalist politician had called for the National Guard to be reinforced under the mobilisation, in what appeared to be a new indication of the pressure Russian forces are facing.
“With a requirement to quell growing domestic dissent in Russia, as well as operational taskings in Ukraine, Rosgvardia is highly likely under particular strain,” British Defence Intelligence said in a briefing note, referring to the force that answers directly to Putin and was created in 2016 to fight terrorism and organised crime.