Moscow-imposed officials in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson – the first captured by Russian troops during the invasion – intend to ask President Vladimir Putin to formally annex the region to Russian territory.
The Kremlin responded that the local people would have to decide their fate – which confirmed Ukraine’s warnings that Russia was planning to hold a plebiscite in the city, which Kyiv considers a farce and an illegal act.
Russia is already launching its currency, media and internet services in Kherson and other parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.
Why did Russia pay attention to Kherson?
Russian forces occupied Kherson in early March, a week after the invasion of Ukraine began.
It was the first major city to fall. Before the invasion, it had a population of 290,000 – but, according to its former mayor, about 40% of its residents have since left the city.
If Russia intends to occupy southern Ukraine and establish a land link to Crimea, Kherson, located at the mouth of the Dnieper River on the Black Sea coast, will be crucial, according to the UK Defense Ministry.
What changes did Russia impose on Kherson?
Russian military officials deposed the elected mayor of Kherson. According to the Russian state news agency Riya, Ihor Kolykhyev was “not cooperating” with the occupying forces. It was replaced by a pro-Russian administration for the city and region.
Access to Ukrainian TV channels was blocked and local Internet service providers were replaced by Russian providers. The residents of Kherson were forced to listen to pro-Russian radio stations for news.
Ukraine says Russia aims to “make its false propaganda an indisputable source of information”.
The new regional government is also eliminating the Ukrainian currency – the hryvnia – and introducing the Russian ruble. The four-month transition period began on 1 May, with the authorities banning the remittance of Ukrainian money to banks.
Residents of Kherson told the BBC that military officers have begun paying pensions in rubles, but many are trying to find intelligent ways to stop the Russian military, including exchanging ruble for hryvnia. Is.
Does Russia intend to hold a referendum?
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned residents of Kherson that Russia intends to call a referendum in that region to decide on seceding from Ukraine and the formation of a “People’s Republic”. Zelensky advised people not to provide personal data such as passport numbers to Russian authorities, as they could be used to falsify votes.
The British Defense Ministry said in an April intelligence update that the referendum would be a way for Russia to justify its occupation of Ukraine. But former mayor Kolykhyev claimed it would be illegal because Kherson is officially still part of Ukraine.
President Zelensky said the referendum was part of a Russian plan to split Ukraine, creating “pseudo-republics” across the country. And, apparently confirming the scenario, Kirill Stremosov, deputy head of the Moscow-installed Kherson government, said on Wednesday (11/5) that “a request will be submitted to make the Kherson region a matter of the Russian Federation”.
Shortly after, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that local residents would have to decide for their future – and mentioned Crimea as an example.
How did Russia change the life of individual regions of Ukraine?
In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after a referendum was declared invalid by the United Nations General Assembly.
Moscow established a link between Crimea and southern Russia, where it transported arms, introduced the ruble and abolished the hryvnia. And the pro-Russian press now dominates the peninsula.
But Kherson’s position is even closer to Crimea than to the two regions of eastern Ukraine, which were occupied by pro-Russian forces shortly after the peninsula was captured. Local pro-Russian leaders created so-called people’s republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, where they also adopted the ruble and granted Russian passports to the population.
Russia pays pensions and salaries to government employees in the region. In schools, children learn Russian according to the school curriculum, and Ukraine has complained about the “Russification” of eastern Ukraine from Moscow.
So far, there is no sign of annexation of Kherson, only the creation of a People’s Republic. Similar votes in Luhansk and Donetsk were largely rejected in May 2014 on charges of fraud and illegality.
But there are rumors that Russia is planning a referendum on its merger with Russia in both regions. Ukraine said all votes would be considered fraudulent.