Russia wants to annex occupied Kherson without a referendum

A demonstration in March 2022 against the occupation of Kherson by Russian forces.Reuters photo

Kherson was the first large city in Ukraine to be occupied by Russian forces after President Putin ordered the invasion in late February. The Russian army now occupied almost the entire Kherson region and the local authorities were replaced by figures supporting Russia.

At first there were rumors that the Russian occupiers wanted to organize a referendum on the proclamation of the Kherson “Independent People’s Republic”, similar to the republics declared by the separatists eight years ago in Donetsk and Luhansk. But those plans appear to have been put on hold.

Recruitment in Russia

Kirill Strimoisov, the Moscow-appointed governor of the Kherson region, said earlier this week that he would immediately ask Putin to join Russia without a referendum. According to him, on this basis, Putin could then annex Kherson to Russia by decree.

The Russians may have abandoned their plans for a popular vote because they feared it would end in fiasco. According to the residents of Kherson, only a minority of the population supports the Russians, and so far about 40 percent of the population has fled.

The establishment would contradict the assurances that Putin made when announcing the military operation. Then he said that Russia had no intention of occupying Ukrainian lands. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week that the establishment is already on the list, if residents agree. Earlier, Andrei Turchak, one of the leaders of Putin’s “United Russia” party, said during a visit to Kherson that Russia would stay in Kherson “forever”.

Corridor to Crimea

Russia is keen to retain control of the region, as it is part of a land corridor of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. In addition, the region is of great importance for the water supply of Crimea.

If Russia does indeed annex Kherson, it will mean the final end of any negotiations with Ukraine for a peaceful settlement. President Zelensky has already declared that he will never agree to an agreement under which Russia can annex entire parts of Ukraine. Mikhail Podoljak, Zelensky’s chief adviser, mocked Strimoisov’s announcement. “The occupiers can ask to join Mars or Jupiter, but the Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson,” he said.

In military terms, the Russians firmly control Kherson at the moment, but their political position remains precarious. In the first weeks after the Russian forces occupied the city, there were almost daily demonstrations against the occupiers. This was dropped after harsh action by the military. However, some residents took to the streets on May 9, when the Russian army and the pro-Moscow population staged a Victory Day parade. The army immediately dispersed the demonstrators.

Delivery of Russian passports

Hundreds of people took part in the parade carrying Soviet flags and a banner reading “We are the children of the victor.” Residents say the army brought a large number of them on buses from Russia-occupied Crimea.

Despite popular protests, the new pro-Moscow authorities are already busy preparing the region to join Russia. The ruble will soon be introduced as a payment method instead of the Ukrainian hryvnia.

Strimoisov also hinted at handing over Russian passports to the residents so that Putin could set himself up as their protector. This is a strategy that Moscow has also pursued in the People’s Republics that have declared separatists in the Donbass.

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