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Russia claims its occupied territories in Ukraine voted to become part of Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The final results of the so-called referendums in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are in. And unsurprisingly, the votes staged by Russia are overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Russian Federation. The results followed five days of voting and widespread reports of voter coercion and intimidation, all of it illegal under Ukrainian and international law and widely condemned as a sham. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf is in Ukraine. And she joins me now. Hi, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So Kat, you've spent the past few days getting as close as you can to these occupied areas. What have you been hearing?

LONSDORF: Yeah, that's right. I've been out talking to people in villages and towns near the southern front line. And one thing that stuck out to me is that pretty much everyone I talked to has rolled their eyes at these referendums the second I ask about them, calling them fake or staged. Many people told me they weren't going to pay attention to the results, that Ukraine's army was just going to win back the land soon anyway. And they kind of scoffed at the whole thing.

FADEL: OK. But that might just be defiance, right? I mean, these could have real implications, not just for the people who live inside these occupied areas, but for those living close by as well, right?

LONSDORF: Yeah, exactly. I talked to one woman, 65-year-old Natalia Nazarenko (ph). She was in the town of Zelenodolsk. It's near the occupied area of Kherson. And there was lots of active fighting happening nearby when I talked to her. You could just hear the shelling in the distance constantly while we were talking.

NATALIA NAZARENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: And she told me, yeah, she's worried. Even as Ukraine's army pushes back, there's still a real chance that Russians could come to her town and occupy it, hold a similar referendum. And there have also been a lot of reports about it getting harder and harder to leave these occupied areas. Kherson in the south, for example, seems nearly impossible to leave now.

FADEL: Now, there have been these reports of voter coercion. What have you heard about that? I mean, I understand it's difficult to get information out of these occupied areas. But what have you heard?

LONSDORF: Yeah, it's really hard to get information. Cell signals and internet have been jammed lately. But I did talk to a good number of people on the other side, in the Ukrainian-held areas, who had managed to hear from friends and relatives inside the occupied areas. And one man I talked to yesterday said his sister had been essentially forced to vote yes when Russian soldiers came into her home with guns. She told them that these soldiers then went and kicked down her neighbor's door when her neighbors had tried to hide to avoid the vote. And I heard stories like this from many people in the last few days. Now, a lot of people have left these areas who just didn't want to vote. And many others just couldn't leave. And, yeah, there are some people in those areas that probably did vote yes willingly. But based on what I've heard, it's just really, really hard to believe that a majority of people did.

FADEL: So what happens now?

LONSDORF: Well, we're still waiting to see. When a similar referendum happened in 2014 in Crimea, we saw that area annexed pretty quickly, even as the international community refused to recognize it. So we might see that happen in the coming days. And that could mean that Moscow could see any attempt by Ukraine to win back their land as an attack on Russian soil itself. And I will say, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been throwing around the threat of nuclear weapons if that happens. Also, there have already been reports, which are hard to verify, of Russia mobilizing Ukrainian men out of these areas to fight for Russia, essentially saying that these areas are now part of Russia. I mean, how willing those men would be to fight for Russia, that's another story.

FADEL: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine. Thanks, Kat.

LONSDORF: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.