Ukraine live briefing: Final day of staged referendums; ‘sabotage’ investigation after Nord Stream explosions

Konstantin Ivashchenko, the pro-Russian mayor of Mariupol, visits a polling station as people vote in a staged referendum in Mariupol on Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Staged referendums in four Ukrainian territories, organized by Kremlin-backed officials, paved the way for Russian annexation Tuesday, yielding never-in-doubt results: supposed pro-annexation majorities of more than 95 percent across regions. The votes were neither free nor fair and were illegal under international law.

In a speech to Russian lawmakers Friday, President Vladimir Putin could announce the annexation of the occupied regions of Ukraine, a British intelligence update said.

The operator of the Nord Stream pipelines built to carry Russian natural gas to Europe reported Tuesday “unprecedented” damage to the system, raising suspicions of sabotage after mysterious leaks caused sudden drops in pressure in three underwater lines in the Baltic Sea.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Nord Stream explosions

  • Denmark’s prime minister said it was “hard to imagine” that the damage to the gas pipelines was “accidental.” At an event in Poland on Tuesday, Mette Frederiksen said, “We cannot rule out sabotage, but it is too early to conclude” — appearing to add credence to fears in Europe that the leaks were caused deliberately, possibly from within Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said he could not “rule out” the possibility of sabotage, describing the pressure drop affecting Nord Stream’s pipelines as “an unprecedented situation that needs to be dealt with urgently.”
  • The incident won’t have much of an impact on already tight gas supplies to the continent since Russia’s Gazprom shut down Nord Stream 1 in August, while Western nations blocked Nord Stream 2 from becoming fully operational as part of sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • Swedish police opened an investigation into “sabotage,” a spokesman for the Swedish public prosecutor’s office, Karl Jigland, told The Washington Post. Germany and Denmark were also investigating. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that the United States is aware of reports leaks of the Nord Stream pipeline may be the result of an “attack or some kind of sabotage” but said that hasn’t been verified.
  • Danish authorities released photographs of gas leaks forming what appeared to be severe gaseous turbulence in the Baltic Sea. A spokesperson for Sweden’s maritime authority told Reuters that Russia’s Nord Stream 1 pipeline was leaking gas into Swedish and Danish waters. The Danish authorities established prohibition zones around the leaks to reduce the risk to ship and air traffic. Experts have also expressed concern about the environmental impact.

Annexation referendums

  • Putin could declare Russia’s absorption of the four regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — as soon as Friday, the British Defense Ministry said.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the referendums a “farce” in his virtual address to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, saying that the annexation of seized territories is the “most brutal violation” of the U.N. charter. “This is a very cynical attempt to forcibly mobilize men in the occupied territory of Ukraine into the Russian army,” Zelensky said.
  • Zelensky, in remarks delivered by video link to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on Tuesday, urged world leaders to take “preventive” action as Russia prepares to annex more territory and send tens of thousands of newly mobilized forces to the front, rather than waiting to “react” to the escalation and risk losing lives and time, The Post reported.

Battleground updates

  • Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev defended Russia’s right to use nuclear weapons if threatened. In a Telegram post Tuesday, Medvedev, who is known for his aggressive defense of Russia’s war in Ukraine, said that “Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary” and in “predetermined cases.” Russia “will do everything we can to prevent our neighbors who are hostile to us from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he added. “This is definitely not a bluff.”
  • Multiple missiles struck Kharkiv, causing some residents to lose power, the city’s mayor Ihor Terekhov said in a Telegram message on Tuesday. No fatalities were reported as of Tuesday.
  • Zelensky said the Donbas region is “still the number one goal for the occupiers” and that Kyiv’s forces are “doing everything to curb enemy activity” in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine. In his nightly address Monday, he also described Putin’s mobilization of reservists as “a frank attempt to give commanders on the ground a constant stream of cannon fodder.”
  • The situation around a nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine “remains tense,” according to Ukraine’s military. Staffers don’t want to cooperate with Russian forces and are trying to leave the area, but a nearby occupied region “is completely closed for entry and exit,” Ukraine’s military leadership said in a statement. The claims could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. Russia has been accused of risking nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

Photos show 10-mile line at Russian border as many flee mobilization

Mobilization and protests in Russia

  • “The Kremlin’s efforts to calm the Russian population are struggling so far,” as unrest continues after Putin announced a military mobilization, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). According to the U.S.-based think tank, protests against Putin’s military mobilization were organized in at least 35 settlements in Russia on Sunday and at least 10 settlements on Monday. Nearly 2,400 arrests have been made since Wednesday, when a wave of demonstrations broke out, according to rights group OVD-Info.
  • Reports from across Russia indicate that people are being summoned in the mobilization despite having no military experience or being too old or physically incapable of serving. The reports mark an early sign — along with the number of people fleeing the country to avoid conscription — that the mobilization could be the latest misstep in Putin’s war. The Kremlin has acknowledged that some Russians who do not meet the criteria for mobilization have been summoned, and it has pledged to correct errors.
  • A Ukrainian official accused Putin of repeatedly lying about Russian military involvement in Ukraine. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, shared a video with edited clips that showed Putin, at various points over time, making contradictory claims about the role of Russian forces in the invasion of Crimea, and announcing a partial military mobilization after previously saying there would be no conscription or calling up of reservists. The video highlights Ukraine’s successful use of social media to bolster support and counter the Kremlin’s narrative.

Global impact

  • More than 65,000 Russian citizens entered E.U. territory from Sept. 19 to Sept. 25, a 30% jump from the previous week, European border control agency Frontex said in a statement on Tuesday. The increase in border crossings follows Russia’s announcement that it would mobilize reservists.
  • Germany’s population has reached an all-time high of more than 84 million, amid an inflow of Ukrainian refugees, the German Federal Statistical Office reported Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
  • Japan on Tuesday condemned Russia’s detention of its consul in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, on allegations that he obtained classified information. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Russia carried out a “coercive interrogation” that included blindfolding and physical restraint, and he called it “extremely regrettable and unacceptable.” The diplomat has since been released, is in good health and will leave the country by Wednesday out of concerns for his safety, Tokyo said.

From our correspondents

Photos show miles of cars at Russia’s border as many flee mobilization. Several countries that border Russia, including Georgia, Finland and Kazakhstan, have reported increased incoming traffic in recent days — a likely sign, along with a surge of interest in flights out of the country, that large numbers of Russians are seeking to flee following Putin’s announcement of a military mobilization.

Russian nationals don’t have many options if they don’t want to deploy to Ukraine, writes The Post’s Ellen Francis. Russian flights in the European Union’s airspace are banned, and Baltic nations closed their land borders.

Satellite images published Monday by the U.S.-based firm Maxar Technologies show a miles-long line of cars and trucks forming a traffic jam at Russia’s border with Georgia. Separate aerial photos from the company also show vehicles snaking into another long line near Russia’s border with Mongolia.

John Hudson and Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.