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Russia Moving Forward With 'Referendum' Plans in Occupied Southern Ukraine, Says Kherson Mayor

Russian forces have been occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson since early March. (file photo)
Russian forces have been occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson since early March. (file photo)

Russian forces in control of territory in Ukraine’s south are moving forward with plans to hold a referendum on integrating the occupied areas into Russia, according to the mayor of the southern city of Kherson.

Ihor Kolykhayev, who continues running day-to-day operations in Kherson despite efforts by occupying forces to appoint their own mayor, said in an interview that a meeting recently took place in the city where Russian officials and local administrators appointed by them discussed when to hold a vote on whether the region would join Russia.

“I was not at this meeting, but more than 70 people were gathered at the administration building,” Kolykhayev told Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “I learned [through sources] that the focus [of the meeting] was the question of a referendum and when to hold it.”

A screen grab of Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev talking to Current Time's Aleksei Aleksandrov.
A screen grab of Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev talking to Current Time's Aleksei Aleksandrov.

Kolykhayev says that no decision has yet been reached, but the two options discussed were either in September or at the end of the calendar year.

A Renewed Push

Reports that Moscow was pursuing plans to hold a referendum on severing Russian-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson oblasts first surfaced in the spring, but died down following counterattacks by Ukrainian forces that have seen the line of control shift across the south.

Those plans appear to be gaining momentum again, with Russian lawmakers floating the idea of a new federal district within Russia comprising Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya administrative regions.

“The Kherson region’s admission into Russia will be complete, similar to Crimea [in 2014],” State Duma member Igor Kastyukevich said on June 7, following a visit to Kherson city by Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian presidential administration.

Ukraine’s military intelligence has also said that Russia is making Ukrainian schools switch to its educational curriculum and is handing out Russian SIM cards to connect Ukrainian cell phones to the Russian network. Russian forces have also begun distributing passports to some people in occupied Ukraine, something that Kolykhayev said he has witnessed.

Kolykhayev says that, while it is clear there is a renewed push to devise referendum plans for Kherson, the uncertain timeline is indicative of a fluid front line and continued fighting, which has left Russian forces only in partial control of the wider oblast.

“That’s why it’s a complicated process and likely why they are postponing the so-called referendum to September or even the end of the year,” Kolykhayev said.

The Southern Front

Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Oblast who was kidnapped by Russian forces early in the war before later being released as part of a reported prisoner exchange, says that similar referendum talks are under way among Russian-appointed local authorities in the city, but the same uncertainties caused by the continued fighting are holding back agreement on an exact date.

“Problem number one is that the Zaporizhzhya region has not been [completely] captured by them,” Fedorov told Current Time during an interview. “Certain areas have been captured, but this is not enough to say that Zaporizhzhya will be part of some kind of [Russian] district.”

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Federov talking to Current Time.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Federov talking to Current Time.

Ukrainian defense officials said on June 10 that Russian troops are fortifying defenses after launching a successful counterattack around Kherson and have reclaimed some of the territory they previously lost in that southern area.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said recently that Moscow is stepping up its operations in parts of Kherson Oblast to fortify against more Ukrainian counterattacks.

There have also been reports of Ukrainian partisans carrying out some attacks in the Russian-occupied south, with a cafe close to the new Russian-backed local government’s headquarters in Kherson getting bombed on June 7.

At least four people were injured in the explosion targeting the shop and Russian officials described the blast as a “terror attack” on Russian-held territory in Ukraine. A Ukrainian military official said the cafe was frequented by Russian leaders in Kherson.

Ukraine’s southern operational command has also claimed that Russian troops have orders to shoot civilians on sight and destroy vehicles at checkpoints on suspicion that they are part of an organized Ukrainian resistance.

Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Aleksei Aleksandrov for Current Time

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