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Russia: annexed areas of Ukraine to get Moscow's 'full protection'

STORY: Russia's top diplomat on Sunday defended his nation's military operations in Ukraine, and said Russian-occupied parts of that country holding widely-criticized referendums would receive Russia's "full protection" if annexed by Moscow.

This was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's response when asked if Russia would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend annexed regions of Ukraine.

“The entire territory of the Russian Federation, which is enshrined and could be further enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation, unquestionably is under the full protection of the state. That is absolutely natural, and all of the laws, doctrines, concepts and strategies of the Russian Federation apply to all of its territory.”

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special military operation", aimed at demilitarizing its neighbor and removing what it calls dangerous nationalists in Kyiv.

And residents in Russian-held parts of Ukraine cast ballots on Sunday on whether they wanted to join the Russian Federation, the third day of polling.

Ukraine and the West have called the votes a sham effort to illegally acquire territory conquered by Russia since the start of its invasion in February.

Kyiv and its Western allies fear that Moscow could portray attacks to retake them and reunify the country as an attack on Russia itself.

In Russian-occupied Mariupol, some voters see the referendum as necessary.

"We all need it to have peace here, to get rid of the evil who humiliated, killed, and destroyed us. The way they destroyed our city - I just don't have words. We need to knock out this evil to live at the liberated land."

The annexation efforts come after Russia face significant strategic setbacks on the battlefield.

Russian soldiers beat a hasty and humiliating retreat in the face of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the northeastern part of the country, abandoning hardware and weapons as they fled.

Those losses may have prompted President Vladimir Putin to last week order Russia's first military mobilization since World War Two.

That move triggered protests across Russia and sent many men of military age fleeing.

The territory controlled by Russia or Russian-backed forces represents about 15% of Ukrainian territory.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was adamant on Saturday that his country would regain all the territory Russia had taken.