Ukraine steps up attacks as Putin urges Russians to vote

Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged people to vote for him at a “difficult” time for the country as Ukraine launched a series of deadly attacks on border regions.

The former KGB agent is set to extend his rule by another six years this weekend in an election the Kremlin says will show that citizens are fully behind his assault on Ukraine.

Ahead of the vote, Kyiv ramped up its aerial bombardment of Russian areas just across their shared border.

At least two people were killed and nine wounded in the Belgorod region, according to its Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.

Shopping centres have been closed in Belgorod and people urged to delay taking trips, he added.

Pro-Ukrainian paramilitaries also said they were escalating attacks and incursions in border areas.

In a joint statement, three volunteer groups – claiming to consist of Russians who oppose the Kremlin and have taken up arms for Ukraine – called on authorities to evacuate civilians from Belgorod and Kursk.

“Civilians should not suffer from the war and any casualties in the process of fighting will be on the conscience of Starovoit and Gladkov,” they added, referring to the regions’ governors.

Russia has rejected the militias’ claims to have gained ground.

The national guard said its units had beaten back “an attack by enemy diversion groups near the village of Tyotkino in the Kursk region”.

The defence ministry said it had fended off another attack by Ukrainian forces trying to enter the Belgorod region via the village of Spodariushino, without saying when the clash had taken place.

It published video showing a series of airstrikes on what it said was a Ukrainian sabotage group.

Russia must be ‘united and self-confident’ – Putin

Ukraine this week launched some of its most significant aerial attacks since the start of the two-year conflict.

“I am convinced you realise what a difficult period our country is going through, what complex challenges we are facing in almost all areas,” President Putin said in an address to Russians.

“In order to continue to respond to them with dignity and successfully overcome difficulties, we need to continue to be united and self-confident.”

All of Mr Putin’s major critics are dead, in prison or exile and authorities blocked the few genuine competitors who tried to stand in the election.

Alexei Navalny, his most high-profile opponent over the last decade, died in an Arctic prison colony last month.

He was serving 19 years for “extremism” – charges widely seen as retribution for his campaigning against the Kremlin leader.

In power as president or prime minister since the final day of 1999, Mr Putin has ushered in a sweeping crackdown of domestic dissent and an aggressive foreign policy.

Victory will allow him to stay in the Kremlin until at least 2030, longer than any Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

He called on Russians to use the election to show their unity behind his leadership.

“We have already shown that we can be together, defending the freedom, sovereignty and security of Russia.

“Today it is critically important not to stray from this path.

Victory will allow Vladimir Putin to stay in the Kremlin until at least 2030

Polls have opened in Russia’s Far East in a presidential election that will continue until Sunday.

Voting is also taking place in occupied territories of Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.

Ukraine said that staging the election on its territory is illegal.

In the Ukrainian city of Mariupol – under the control of Russian forces – election officials opened pop-up polling stations on the streets.

Banners were unfurled showing a red, white and blue ‘V’ logo – an army symbol used as a sign of support for the military offensive.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry dismissed the vote as a “farce” and called on the international community not to recognise the result.

Russia’s opposition has called for anti-Putin protests on Sunday, the final day of voting.

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