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Vote in Ukraine’s Russia-held areas stokes tension with West

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Kremlin-orchestrated referendums that are expected to serve as a pretext for Moscow to annex Russian-held regions of Ukraine concluded Tuesday as the preordained outcome of the votes heightened tension between Russia and the West.

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions in southern and eastern Ukraine said polls closed Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting and the counting of ballots had started.

The annexation of the regions which could happen as soon as Friday, sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in the seven-month war in Ukraine. Russia warned it could resort to deploying nuclear weapons to defend its own territory, including newly acquired lands.

After the five days of balloting, “the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked up Moscow’s nuclear option since last week following a Ukrainian counteroffensive that led to recent battlefield setbacks and has the Kremlin’s forces increasingly cornered.

The balloting that started Friday in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions and a call-up of Russian military reservists ordered by Putin are other strategies aimed at buttressing Moscow’s exposed position.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council chaired by Putin, spelled out the threat in the bluntest terms yet Tuesday.

“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” Medvedev wrote on his messaging app channel. “I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict in that case.”

The United States has dismissed the Kremlin’s nuclear talk as scare tactics.

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, responded to Putin’s nuclear threats from last week. Sullivan told NBC on Sunday that Russia would pay a high, if unspecified, price if Moscow made good on threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

The referendums ask residents whether they want the areas to become part of Russia. But the voting has been anything but free or fair.

Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians finally seized it following a months-long siege, said only about 20% of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum. Mariupol had a pre-war population of 541,000.

“A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?” Boychenko said during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting.

Western allies are standing firm with Ukraine, dismissing the referendum votes as a sham.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said while visiting Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined “to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

She described the ballots as “mock referendums.” Ukrainian officials said Paris and Kyiv had moved closer to an agreement that would Ukrainian forces with French Caesar artillery systems.

Meanwhile, the mass call-up of Russians to active military duty has to some degree backfired on Putin.

It has triggered a massive exodus of men from the country, fueled protests in many regions across Russia and sparked occasional acts of violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire in an enlistment office in a Siberian city and gravely wounded the local chief military recruitment officer. The shooting came after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices.

With Putin’s back against the wall amid Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, Russian media speculated he might follow up on last week’s partial mobilization order by declaring martial law and shutting the nation’s borders for all men of fighting age.

Russian officials announced plans to set up a military recruitment office right on the border with Georgia, one of the main routes of the exodus.

As Moscow works to build up its troops in Ukraine, Russian shelling continued to claim lives. At least 11 civilians were killed and 18 others wounded by Russian barrages in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Tuesday.

Among the casualties were eight people, including a 15-year-old boy, who were killed by a Russian strike on the town of Pervomaiskyi in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern Donetsk region where shells killed three people, said that “every day of the referendum we count more dead in the Donbas, and those sad numbers show Russia’s real goals.”

Donetsk and Luhansk, which Moscow-backed separatists have partly controlled for eight years, together make up Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.

The Ukraine war is still gripping world attention, as it causes widespread shortages and rising prices not only for food but for energy, inflation hitting the cost of living everywhere, and growing global inequality. The talk of nuclear war has only deepened the concern.

Misery and hardship are often the legacy of Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian areas now recaptured by Kyiv’s forces. Some people have had no gas, electricity, running water or internet since March.

The war has brought an energy crunch for much of Western Europe, with German officials seeing the disruption of Russian supplies as a power play by the Kremlin to pressure Europe over its support for Ukraine.

The German economy ministry said Tuesday that the Nord Stream 1 pipeline leading from Russia to Europe has reported a drop in pressure, only hours after a leak was reported in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea off Denmark. Both pipelines were built to carry natural gas from Russia to Europe.

The extent of the damage means that the pipelines are unlikely to be able to carry any gas to Europe this winter even if there was the political will to bring them online, analysts at the Eurasia Group said.

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the problems were “very alarming” and would be investigated.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, revealed another prong of Russia’s offensive: a sprawling disinformation network.

The network originating in Russia aimed to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of sham news websites to spread biased Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine, Meta said Tuesday.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Adam Schreck And Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

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N Korea fires 23 missiles, prompting air raid alert in South

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By Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Air raid sirens sounded on a South Korean island and residents evacuated to underground shelters after North Korea fired more than 20 missiles Wednesday, at least one of them in its direction and landing near the rivals’ tense sea border. South Korea quickly responded by launching its own missiles in the same border area.

The launches came hours after North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons to get the U.S. and South Korea to “pay the most horrible price in history” in protest of ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal. The White House maintained that the United States has no hostile intent toward North Korea and vowed to work with allies to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The North’s barrage of missile tests also came as world attention was focused on South Korea following a weekend Halloween tragedy that saw more than 150 people killed in a crowd surge in Seoul in what was the country’s largest disaster in years.

South Korea’s military said North Korea launched at least 23 missiles — 17 in the morning and six in the afternoon — off its its eastern and western coasts on Wednesday. It said the weapons were all short-range ballistic missiles or suspected surface-to-air missiles. Also Wednesday, North Korea fired about 100 artillery shells into an eastern maritime buffer zone the Koreas created in 2018 to reduce tensions, according to South Korea’s military.

The 23 missiles launched is a record number of daily missile tests by North Korea, some experts say.

One of the ballistic missiles was flying toward South Korea’s Ulleung island before it eventually landed 167 kilometers (104 miles) northwest of the island. South Korea’s military issued an air raid alert on the island, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korean media published photos of island residents moving to underground shelters.

Hours later, South Korea’s military said it lifted the air raid alert on the island. South Korea’s transport ministry said it has closed some air routes above the country’s eastern waters until Thursday morning in the wake of the North Korean launches.

That missile landed 26 kilometers (16 miles) away from the rivals’ sea border. It landed in international waters off the east coast of South Korea. South Korea’s military said it was the first time a North Korean missile has landed so close to the sea border since the countries’ division in 1948.

“This is very unprecedented and we will never tolerate it,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

In 2010, North Korea shelled a front-line South Korean island off the peninsula’s western coast, killing four people. But the weapons used were artillery rockets, not ballistic missiles whose launches or tests are banned by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Later Wednesday, South Korean fighter jets launched three air-to-surface, precision-guided missiles near the eastern sea border to show its determination to get tough on North Korean provocations. South Korea’s military said the missiles landed in international waters at the same distance of 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of the sea border as the North Korean missile fell earlier Wednesday.

It said it maintains a readiness to win “an overwhelming victory” against North Korea in potential clashes.

“North Korea firing missiles in a way that sets off air raid sirens appears intended to threaten South Koreans to pressure their government to change policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s expanding military capabilities and tests are worrisome, but offering concessions about alliance cooperation or nuclear recognition would make matters worse.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier identified three of the North Korean weapons launched as “short-range ballistic missiles” fired from the North’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan, including the one that landed near the sea border.

North Korean short-range weapons are designed to strike key facilities in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.

In an emergency meeting with top security officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to take swift unspecified steps to make North Korea face consequences for its provocation. He said he would consider the North Korean missile’s landing near the border “a virtual violation of (our) territorial waters.”

During the meeting, officials also lamented that the North Korean missile launches came as South Korea is in a mourning period over the crowd crush. They noted this “clearly showed the nature of the North Korean government,” according to South Korea’s presidential office.

Earlier Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said at least two ballistic missiles fired by North Korea showed a possibly “irregular” trajectory. This suggests the missiles were the North’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile, which was modeled on Russia’s Iskander missile.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called North Korea’s continuing missile tests “absolutely impermissible.”

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the danger of armed clashes between the Koreas off their western or eastern coasts is increasing. He said South Korea needs to make “proportional responses” to North Korean provocations, not “overwhelming responses,” to prevent tensions from spiraling out of control and possibly leading the North to use its tactical nuclear weapons.

Animosities on the Korean Peninsula have been running high in recent months, with North Korea testing a string of nuclear-capable missiles and adopting a law authorizing the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations. Some experts still doubt North Korea would use nuclear weapons first in the face of U.S. and South Korean forces.

North Korea has argued its recent weapons tests were meant to issue a warning to Washington and Seoul over their joint military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal, including this week’s exercises.

In a statement released early Wednesday, Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party who is considered a close confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, called the Vigilant Storm air force drills “aggressive and provocative.”

“If the U.S. and South Korea attempt to use armed forces against (North Korea) without any fear, the special means of the (North’s) armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay,” Pak said, in an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,” he said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have steadfastly said their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no intentions of attacking North Korea.

“We reject the notion that they serve as any sort of provocation. We have made clear that we have no hostile intent towards (North Korea) and call on them to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said late Tuesday.

North Korea “continues to not respond. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to limit the North’s ability to advance its unlawful weapons programs and threaten regional stability,” Watson said.

This year’s Vigilant Storm military exercises are the largest-ever for the annual fall maneuvers, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. About 1,600 flights are planned involving 240 U.S. and South Korean fighter jets. The round-the-clock drills, which began Oct. 31, are to continue through Nov. 4 and include warfighting tactics both in the air and on the ground, it said.

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Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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Freeland says comments about Africa aid were not meant to offend

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By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she did not mean to offend anyone after saying last week that Africans must be “prepared to die for their democracy,” and hinted that Canada might boost aid for the continent.

“If anyone did find my comments to be insensitive, then I’m very sorry,” Freeland said Monday.

“If … a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.’”

In a speech last week in Washington, Freeland urged democracies to grow closer through trade and energy ties, in the face of a perilous new world order where autocracies are trying to usurp democracy.

In a question session afterwards, a man who said he works for African Development Bank asked Freeland about western countries hinting at a drop in aid for the continent, in order to fund Ukraine’s needs.

The unnamed man, whom The Canadian Press could not identify, asked Freeland to respond to concerns that this will only increase Russia’s sway in that continent.

Freeland responded that western countries do need to step up and “prove we’re real partners.”

But she also said it is up to African countries to choose their own paths, and rejected the idea that they can simply fall into Russia’s orbit by accident.

“A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy,” she said last week.

The comment led to pushback on social media, and raised eyebrows among Africa experts.

University of Ottawa professor Rita Abrahamsen said Freeland was correct in saying that it’s up to Africans to determine their destiny, but cautioned that the conflict in Ukraine has become a sensitive issue.

“This a strong sense among many African countries that they are being bullied or patronized, or that one is holding aid hostage to support in the UN (forums), for the war in Ukraine,” she said.

“Canada has to be very, very careful here.”

Abrahamsen, the director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put economic pressure on the continent.

“Emotions are running high around this on the African continent, and it means that words have to be judged very carefully,” she said.

“We’re looking at a continent where a large part of it … (is) close to famine conditions, acute starvation. We’re looking at immense flooding in large parts of West Africa; we’re looking at a return of military coups.”

Freeland said Monday that the western world needs to recognize that current problems stem from colonization.

“These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility.”

She hinted that upcoming budgets could include more humanitarian aid for Africa, and noted Canada’s push to reform global financial organizations to better fit the needs of poorer nations.

“We need today, if anything, to step up our engagement with the global south,” she said, referring to developing nations.

“What is important is to take the lead from our African partners, and to listen to them about what it is specifically that is on their agenda, and what specifically they need.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.

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