Russia’s foreign minister has dismissed Ukrainian and Western condemnation of what they say are sham referenda in four regions of Ukraine.
“The hysteria which we have seen is very telling,” Sergey Lavrov told a news conference at the United Nations on Saturday, after he addressed the General Assembly’s annual meeting.
Voting began Friday and will run through Tuesday in the provinces of Luhansk, Kherson and the partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions. Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents from those areas could vote.
In Ukraine, some local officials said voters were being intimidated and threatened.
Kyiv and Western nations warn that the referenda are aimed at annexing the occupied areas and denounce them as a violation of international law.
“As was said by President Putin, we will unconditionally respect the results of these democratic processes,” Lavrov said.
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and has requested that the U.N. Security Council meet Tuesday to discuss the escalation.
The referenda were quickly organized after Ukraine recaptured large swaths of the northeastern part of the country in a counteroffensive earlier this month.
By annexing the four areas into Russia, Western officials fear Moscow could portray Ukrainian military operations to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, potentially even using that to justify a nuclear response.
Calls for peace
At the United Nations, Russia’s strategic partners urged an end to the conflict, which has exacerbated global food, fuel and financial crises.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said Beijing does not want to see the crisis “spilling over” and called for talks.
“The fundamental solution is to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties and build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture,” he said.
India’s foreign minister said his country respects the U.N. Charter and sees dialogue and diplomacy as the “only way out.”
“It is therefore in our collective interest to work constructively, both within the United Nations and outside, in finding an early resolution to this conflict,” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.
Asked about engaging with the U.S. or Europeans, Russia’s Lavrov says his government is not opposed to it.
“We aren’t saying no to contacts,” he said, adding that “it is always better to talk than not to talk.” But he emphasized that in the present situation, Russia would not take the first step.
The head of a U.N. commission of inquiry said Friday that war crimes including rape, torture and the confinement of children have been committed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
“Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” commission head Erik Mose told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He did not specify who was to blame, but the commission has focused on areas previously occupied by Russian forces, such as Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.
Investigators from the commission, created by the rights council in March, visited 27 places and interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses.
In New York, the Russian foreign minister has said mass graves at Bucha were staged and claimed Saturday that Kyiv had denied access to foreign reporters to alleged new graves found in the city of Izium.
But VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze is in Izium, where she reported from a mass graveyard that more than 400 bodies were unearthed, many found with their hands tied behind their backs, ropes around their necks, broken bones and gunshot wounds.
Meanwhile, an independent Russian human rights group says more than 1,000 people were detained across the country at demonstrations Saturday for protesting President Vladimir Putin’s order calling up 300,000 military reservists to fight in Ukraine. It is Russia’s first military call-up since World War II.
The independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group said it was aware of detentions in 32 different cities, from St. Petersburg to Siberia. Unsanctioned rallies are illegal under Russian law, which also forbids any activity considered to defame the armed forces.
Footage from the some of the protests showed Russian officers carrying men and leading women to police vans.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed information to this report.