Russia Plans to Stage a Referendum to Justify Its Occupation of the Southern Ukraine City of Kherson

A memorial in Kherson to soldiers killed during the war with Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, photographed before the southern Ukrainian city fell to the invading Russian forces. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

A memorial in Kherson to soldiers killed during the war with Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, photographed before the southern Ukrainian city fell to the invading Russian forces. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

( – In a move critics say is straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook, officials in a strategically-situated Ukrainian city now under Russian occupation are reportedly planning to stage a “referendum” on declaring a pro-Moscow “people’s republic.”

Kherson in early March became the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian troops since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on February 24.

Ukraine’s military says authorities in Kherson plan a pseudo referendum, possibly as soon as Wednesday. Ukrainian military intelligence reported last week that ballots, brochures, and posters were being printed to promote the fiction that a vote has been held.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned people living in Kherson to be careful what information they provide to the “invaders,” including passport data, saying requests for such information was aimed at falsifying a referendum.

In a press conference at the weekend, Zelenskyy said that if referendums are organized in Russian-held areas like Kherson, Ukraine will withdraw from any talks that may be underway with Russia.

British military intelligence in an update this week also reported on the alleged plan.

“Russia is planning a staged referendum in the southern city of Kherson aimed at justifying its occupation,” it said. “The city is key to Russia’s goal of establishing a land connection with Crimea and dominating southern Ukraine.”

Kherson, a city of around 300,000 before the war, is situated where the Dnieper, one of Europe’s longest rivers, enters the Black Sea, between Russian-occupied Crimea and Odesa, Ukraine’s major Black Sea port.

Once Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region in late March and early April, the focus of the invasion has been on the south and east. Military analysts say Russia appears determined to establish a “land bridge” linking Russian-occupied Crimea with the Russian border to the east and the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR), while also pushing west of Crimea towards Odesa.

In two other areas located between Crimea and the Russian border that fell to the Russians early on during the invasion, Berdyansk and Melitopol, there have also been reports of referendum plans.

The main city along that strip of coastline, Mariupol, is now under almost full Russian control, after some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked in a recent interview about reported referendum plans in Berdyansk and Melitopol.

He did not dispute the reports, but instead said Russian-speakers in parts of Ukraine have suffered for eight years under “neo-Nazis” – a reference to the government in Kyiv that took office after a popular uprising ousted a pro-Moscow president in 2014.

Now that those “neo-Nazis” have been ejected, Lavrov said, holdings referendums on who should govern those regions was “the manifestation of democracy after so many years of oppression.”

From the start of his “special military operation,” Putin has claimed that Russia has no plans to occupy Ukrainian territories.

The Kremlin has a poor track record in this regard.

“Such staged ‘plebiscites’ are one of its favorite instruments from the hybrid war playbook, and the Kremlin plans a series of these ‘referenda’ in other Ukrainian regions to legitimize its military presence in Ukraine,” Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press news outlet said in an analysis.

The most consequential Russia-orchestrated referendum in Ukraine in recent years ended with Putin annexing Crimea in March 2014. Most of the international community did not recognize the vote, and the move inflamed relations between Moscow and the West.

Two months later pro-Russian separatists in DPR and LPR held referendums on “independence.” Putin’s recognition last February of the two “people’s republics” was a prelude to the invasion days later.

Russia also backs separatists in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have operated as effectively independent statelets since Russia invaded in 2008, after Georgia’s government tried to rein them in.

South Ossetia’s Moscow-backed “president” is now pushing for a referendum for the region to accede to Russia.

Russia also backs separatists in the Transnistria (Trans-Dniester) region which broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s. Russian “peacekeepers” have been deployed there for decades, despite calls from the Moldovan government for their departure. 

Transnistria borders south-western Ukraine, and officials in Kyiv have expressed concern that Russian troops there could join the invasion. The region’s capital Tiraspol, is just 60 miles from Odesa.

A pair of explosions at a radio facility in Transnistria on Tuesday have added to concerns, with the Moldovan government calling the incident a provocation designed to increase tensions.

See also:

Lavrov Hints Russia Will Retain Parts of Ukraine After Referendums – ‘The Manifestation of Democracy’ (Apr. 20, 2022)
Putin Says Russia Recognizes the Expanded Borders Claimed by its Proxies in Eastern Ukraine (Feb. 22, 2022)

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