The staged voting in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine is taking place against a backdrop of violence and repression.
A campaign to “Russify” the areas began across the occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine in the first weeks of the Russian invasion, with a sophisticated propaganda apparatus that closely followed the tracks of the tanks.
Billboards were plastered with signs declaring “Russia is here forever.” Access to some Ukrainian cellphone networks was severed. Internet service was routed through Russia. The Ukrainian currency was replaced by the Russian ruble. Teachers were forced to teach a Russian curriculum.
As oppression deepened, many people fled. There are an estimated 1 to 1.2 million people living in the Russian-occupied lands seized since Feb. 24, according to Ukrainian officials — less than half the prewar population.
The places Russian forces have occupied and then abandoned are a testament to the brutality of Russian rule, Ukrainian and Western officials say.
“Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that’s left in its wake,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the United Nations on Thursday.
While staged votes are being held in four Ukrainian provinces, Russian forces do not have control over the entire administrative regions. Russian forces in southern Ukraine are dug in, slowing a Ukrainian offensive around the Black Sea port city of Kherson, but they are struggling elsewhere.
Russia controls less than half of the Zaporizka and Donetsk regions. And in the Luhansk region, where Moscow engaged in a bloody scorched earth campaign to reach the administrative border this summer, Russian forces are now on the defensive.
The referendums are intended to give President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia legally dubious justification to declare parts of Ukraine as Russian. The staged votes recall a poll in 2014 in Crimea that took place under the watch of armed soldiers and was quickly followed by Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
The threat of nuclear conflagration has been a source of deep concern since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February, and annexing parts of Ukraine could bring them under the protection of Moscow’s nuclear umbrella. Mr. Putin warned earlier this week that Russia “will use all the means at our disposal” to defend Russian territory.