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Members of an electoral commission with a mobile ballot box and documents while visiting local residents on the second day of a referendum on the joining of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) to Russia, in Mariupol, on September 24, 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

KYIV, Ukraine: Moscow replaced its top logistics general on Saturday after a series of setbacks as Kremlin-held regions of eastern and southern Ukraine voted for a second day on becoming part of Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday signed amendments toughening punishment for voluntary surrender and refusal to fight by up to 10 years in prison, just days after ordering a partial mobilisation.

A separate law, also signed on Saturday, facilitates access to Russian citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the Russian army, following the mobilisation designed to increase the ranks of his army fighting a military operation in Ukraine

The changing of the guard comes amid a major mobilisation drive by Russia after the Ukraine war revealed widespread logistical difficulties, with Kyiv now taking back more and more territory.

Russia’s attacks and recent gains by the Ukrainian army in a lightening counter-offensive have laid bare important logistical flaws with some analysts seeing logistics as the weak link in Moscow’s army.

“Army General Dmitry Bulgakov has been relieved of the post of deputy minister of defence” and will be replaced by Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, aged 60, the defence ministry said.

Russia’s partial mobilisation announced on Wednesday will likely be one of his first big logistical challenges with the hundreds of thousands of reservists being called up needing to be equipped and trained before deployment.

The voting on whether Russia should annex four regions of Ukraine started on Friday, dramatically raising the stakes seven months after Moscow’s troops invaded.

US President Joe Biden has dismissed the referendums as a “sham... a false pretext to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law”.

Even Beijing, Moscow’s closest ally since the war began in February, reacted.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi - in comments made to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba at the UN General Assembly on Friday - said the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected”.

The voting is being held in Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Lugansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south.

‘No legitimacy’

For four days, authorities are going door-to-door for four days to collect votes. Polling stations then open Tuesday for residents to cast ballots on the final day. Results are expected as early as late Tuesday or Wednesday.

“Ultimately, things are moving towards the restoration of the Soviet Union. The referendum is one step towards this,” Leonid, a 59-year-old military official, told AFP.

The four regions’ integration into Russia would represent a major escalation of the conflict as Moscow would consider any military move there as an attack on its own territory.