In its bid to permanently sixteen control of the Ukrainian city of Kherson, Russia is looking to hold what US and Ukrainian officials say is a “sham referendum” on secession.
By holding an election in Kherson, Russia is aiming “to try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy” to its rule there, Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said earlier this weekend.
Under the pretense of providing Kherson residents welfare payments or humanitarian aid, Russian intelligence operatives are collecting personal data of Ukrainians there in order to commit ballot fraud during the potential referendum, according to Ukrainian military intelligence.
Russia is also demanding that residents of the city, which is the largest captured by Moscow since the beginning of the February 2022 invasion, start using the Russian ruble as currency, instead of the Ukrainian hryvnia.
Earlier this week, Russian occupying authorities cut the region’s connections to Ukrainian internet and telecommunications infrastructure, forcibly re-routing communications through Russian-controlled networks, according to the Ukrainian government.
In Russia-occupied regions of the country, including Kherson, local politicians have been abducted, school directors, journalists, and others have been “disappeared” and Russia is planning on instituting its own curriculum in the region’s schools, Carpenter said.
Local Ukrainian governments have also been replaced by those composed of pro-Russian collaborators known as “people’s councils,” according to Carpenter.
In late April, the Ukrainian security service announced it had launched treason investigations against the two top Ukrainian officials of Russia’s puppet government in Kherson — one of whom it claims has not lived in the region since 1991.
Should it occur, the Russian referendum in Kherson would follow a well-established pattern by the Kremlin in Ukraine. In 2014, soon after Russian forces invaded Ukraine’s strategically located Crimean Peninsula, Moscow sponsored a referendum — widely considered fraudulent — on whether the region should leave Ukraine outright and join Russia.
In 2014, Russian separatist proxies in parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region also oversaw referenda declaring independence from Kyiv — and the formation of two small breakaway states called the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.
Outside of Ukraine, Russia has also supported breakaway states under pro-Moscow control in Georgia (in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Moldova (in Transnistria).
Unlike in Crimea, Russia did not formally annex Luhansk or Donetsk in 2014 or thereafter, with Moscow content to bring the region under its de facto control and to use it as staging ground for a grinding war of attrition against forces loyal to Kyiv in the country’s east.
But now the US has intelligence that Russia may be attempting to formally annex Luhansk and Donetsk as well, according to Carpenter, the US’s OSCE ambassador, with new referenda planned for mid-May. Carpenter said Moscow might also try to annex Kherson.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that if Russia holds referenda in the Donbas or Kherson regions, Kyiv will withdraw from peace negotiations with Moscow.
Annexing Kherson or the two Donbas statelets would represent a major escalation in the war, as any attempt by the Ukrainians to recapture the territory could thereafter be spun by Moscow as an attack on Russia itself.
Meanwhile, perhaps in advance of the referendum, Russian military forces are trying to capture all of the Kherson administrative region, or oblast, and to press northward from Kherson toward the Ukrainian cities of Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih, according to Ukrainian officials.
The perpetual occupation and potential annexation of Kherson would be a key goal for Russia in its drive to create a “land bridge” from the Russian border to Crimea. The city is also critically situated if, as many analysts believe, Moscow is seeking to connect Russia overland to Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova situated on Ukraine’s western border.