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Moscow signals intention to annex Kherson in southern Ukraine.

Local officials installed by Moscow in Kherson in southern Ukraine said they intended to ask Russian president Vladimir Putin for the region to join Russia, in the clearest sign yet that the Kremlin plans to annex the province.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday that “the residents of Kherson should decide” whether to become part of Russia, according to Interfax. Moscow’s forces have occupied the southern region of Ukraine since the early weeks of its invasion.

Mr Peskov added: “Such fateful decisions must have absolutely clear legal grounds and standing, be completely legal just as it was in the case of Crimea.” The neighbouring peninsula was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014 after it sent in its special forces ahead of a stage-managed referendum.

Most countries do not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which Ukraine and its allies say was a violation of international law.

Mr Peskov did not say whether Russia intended to hold a similar referendum in Kherson, and Moscow-appointed officials there said they would not ask for one, strongly indicating that Moscow has no intention of returning the captured territories to Ukraine.

Control

Russia has looked to cement its control over most of Kherson and much of the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region even as its troops withdrew from central Ukraine in late March. Russian forces have also failed to make significant headway in an offensive for the eastern Donbas border region, and have been driven back from the area near Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city.

“The only appeal that can be prepared by [collaborators] of [the] Kherson region is a request for an excuse after a court verdict,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office.

“The invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter. The Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson, no matter what games with words they play,” Mr Podolyak added.

Kirill Stremousov, the Russia-appointed deputy regional governor, on Wednesday said “the city of Kherson is Russia”, adding that there were no plans to hold separatist independence referendums like those in occupied areas of the eastern Donbas border region in 2014.

Like the Crimean referendum, the votes in Donetsk and Luhansk were held after Russian-backed militias had seized control over much of the region, prompting Ukrainian officials and many pro-Ukrainian residents to flee.

“There will be no referendums. It will be a decree based on an appeal from the Kherson regional leadership to the Russian president, and there will be a request to include the region into a proper region of the Russian Federation,” Mr Stremousov said, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.

Kicked out

In late April, armed men kicked out the pro-Ukrainian officials who had run the territory in co-ordination with Kyiv and replaced them with locals loyal to Moscow.

Andrei Turchak, head of Mr Putin’s United Russia party, said during a visit to Kherson last week that “Russia is here forever” and vowed “there will be no return to the past”.

The occupied territory links the southern parts of Donbas with Crimea, allowing Moscow to supply the annexed peninsula directly from mainland Russia and securing its water supply after a years-long Ukrainian blockade.

Russia has also taken steps to eliminate Ukrainian statehood in the mostly Russian-speaking region and reinforce Mr Putin’s narrative that the area is “historical Russian land”.

The Moscow-backed administration quickly announced plans to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia with the Russian rouble, introduce the Russian school curriculum, route internet connections through Crimea and restore a toppled statue of Lenin in the city’s main square.

Regular pro-Ukraine protests in Kherson took place throughout March but have since fizzled out after Russian troops violently dispersed them.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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