Kherson in southern Ukraine was the first major city to fall to Russian forces that swept into the country in late February. Within the first days of the invasion, the city was encircled and large parts were cut off from water, electricity and access to food.
It could do so by installing a Russian-backed government as it did in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, removing local leaders and placing pro-Russian elites to control territories ripped from Kyiv’s control or by annexing the Kherson region to neighboring Crimea, itself annexed by Russia that same year.
Now, with an Internet and cellphone blackout in the region and an attempt to supplant Ukrainian currency with the Russian ruble, it appears that Russia may be attempting to bring such a plan to fruition, giving it potentially long-lasting control over a strategically crucial region of the country.
As Russian officials announced that the transition to Russian currency for the Kherson region would begin May 1, an intelligence update released by Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia was trying to legitimize “its control of the city and surrounding areas through installing a pro-Russian administration.”
Taken together, the moves “are likely indicative of Russian intent to exert strong political and economic influence in Kherson over the long term,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said. Enduring control over the territory would provide security for Russia’s grip on Crimea and allow its forces to sustain advances in the north and west, the ministry said.
The Russian activity in Kherson follows the “destabilization playbook” Russia used in the eastern Donbas region and in Crimea in 2014, Stefan Wolff, professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, told The Washington Post. That year, a disputed Crimean referendum showed results that almost 97 percent of voters supported incorporation into Russia.
Speaking to Russian state television, Kirill Stremousov, described by Tass as “deputy head of the civil-military administration of the Kherson region,” said there would be a four-to-five-month transition away from the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, which has been in use since 1996.
Stremousov, who was installed by Moscow, said the move was necessary because “the pension fund and the treasury left the territory of the Kherson region” during the conflict. “We plan to introduce the ruble zone [to provide] assistance, first of all, to pensioners, socially unprotected segments of the population and, of course, state employees,” Stremousov said in an interview with the Rossiya 24 TV channel.
The Ukrainian government confirmed, meanwhile, that Internet connections and mobile phone networks have gone down in the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region. The State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine said in a statement that it was a deliberate act, aimed to “leave Ukrainians without access to the true information on developments in the war waged by Russia against Ukraine.”
NetBlocks, a civil society group that monitors Internet access worldwide, also confirmed late Saturday on Twitter that “occupied south Ukraine is now in the midst of a near-total Internet blackout.
The next Russian step, if the past is a guide, could be a controlled referendum designed to give the appearance of legitimacy to the Russian takeover.
Indeed, Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights, Lyudmila Denisova posted in mid-April that Moscow was printing ballots for a referendum intended to create a “Kherson People’s Republic,” an assertion that could not be verified by The Washington Post.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 21 warned Kherson residents against sharing information — including passport information — with Russian forces. “This is not to help you. … This is aimed to falsify the so-called referendum on your land, if an order comes from Moscow to stage such a show,” Zelensky said.
The purpose of a referendum in Kherson would be to preserve the “veneer of legitimacy” for a direct annexation of southern Ukrainian territories or a recognition of their independent statehood and potentially incorporating them into Russia,” said Wolff. “From that perspective it is very much a tokenistic exercise.”
Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev — whom local authorities say the Russians have replaced — sketched out a different scenario in an interview published Thursday in the Ukrainian news outlet NV.
He said he saw “no signs” that Russia would hold a referendum to declare a separate “People’s Republic of Kherson,” as Moscow has done in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions previously.
“What I see: There won’t be a referendum,” Kolykhaiev was quoted saying. Instead, he said, Russia would “most likely” link the Kherson region to Crimea. “There’s no sense [for Russia] in creating another ‘quasi-republic,’ ” Kolykhaiev said.
Kherson, a city of about 300,000 on the Black Sea, is strategically important to Russia. Sitting directly atop the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, Kherson is a gateway to southern Ukraine. It is home to key sea and river ports, and lies on the Dnieper River, which helps Russia cut off Ukrainian forces from the Black Sea coast.
“The Ukrainian people are feeling nervous and depressed right now,” Kherson city council secretary Halyna Luhova told The Post on Sunday.
David L. Stern and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.