As Russian leaders and proxy leaders in occupied areas of Ukraine push for a referendum, Ukrainian officials as well as Western leaders have slammed the attempted vote as a bid to annex territory by Russia, even as the two countries exchange prisoners with the help of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The announced referendum on Tuesday, which came before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial military mobilization, has been denounced by Ukrainian officials as a “sham,” due to the belief by many analysts and governments that the vote will be rigged toward Russia’s favor, according to CNBC.

“Today there is quite noisy news coming from Russia. And there are many questions about it. But what actually happened? What was heard that we have not heard before,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

“This is the desperate, face-saving attempt which they’re trying to use to compensate for the humiliation that they have suffered on the battlefield as a result of the Ukrainian army’s counter offensive, both in Kharkiv region and in Kherson,” defense advisor Yuriy Sak said.

The NATO alliance, meanwhile, sees the referendum as an “escalation” to war, with the United States, Germany, and France promising not to recognize the results of the referendum, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling it a “parody” of real elections, the BBC reported.

“If the Donbas referendum idea wasn't so tragic it would be funny,” he said.

The regions up for a referendum are the Donetsk and Luhansk areas in the eastern Donbas region, as well as the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. The referendum was possibly prompted by the Ukrainian army’s successful counteroffensive in retaking territory that was taken by Russia.

Despite the referendum, Russia and Ukraine had a surprising exchange of prisoners on Wednesday, with over 300 prisoners overall being exchanged by the countries, in a deal that was hammered down with the help of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, al-Jazeera reported.

Russia allowed multiple prisoners of war from countries like the United States and Morocco to be exchanged, as well as 215 Ukrainians, and in exchange Ukraine sent back 55 Russian prisoners as well as pro-Russia politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who was facing treason charges in Ukraine.

“This is clearly a victory for our country, for our entire society. And the main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safe and at home,” Zelenskyy said in a video address during the exchange. “We remember all our people and try to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy.”

Ukrainian officials have criticized the Russian government for announcing a referendum in occupied territories on Tuesday, as the two countries successfully exchange prisoners for the first time since the start of the war. This is a representational image. Max Kukurudziak/Unsplash.

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