January 28, 2023
How Russia changed Kherson, the first city in conflict

How Russia changed Kherson, the first city in conflict

Pro-Ukrainian activists in front of Russian soldiers during a demonstration in Kherson

Photo: BBC News Brazil

Moscow-imposed authorities in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson – the first captured by Russian forces during the invasion – intend to demand that President Vladimir Putin formally incorporate the region into Russian territory.

The Kremlin responded that local residents should decide their own fate – apparently confirming Ukraine’s warning that Russia might be planning a referendum in the city, which Kyiv considers a farce and an illegal act.

Russia is already providing its currency, media and internet services to Kherson and other parts of Ukraine occupied by the Russian military.

Why Russia focused on Kherson?

Russian forces occupied Kherson in early March, a week after the start of the invasion of Ukraine.

It was the first major city to fall. Before the invasion, it had a population of 290,000 – but, according to the former mayor, about 40% of the population has since left the city.

If Russia intends to occupy southern Ukraine and establish a land link to Crimea, Kherson, located at the mouth of the Dnieper River on the Black Sea coast, will be critical, according to the British Ministry of Defense.

Kherson residents flee as Russian forces disperse their protest

Kherson residents flee as Russian forces disperse their protest

Photo: Reuters/BBC News Brazil

What changes has Russia imposed on Kherson?

Russian military officials overthrew the elected mayor of Kherson. According to the official Russian news agency RIA, Ihor Kulekhaev “does not cooperate” with the occupying forces. It was replaced by a pro-Russian administration of the city and region.

Access to Ukrainian TV channels was blocked and local ISPs were replaced by Russian ones. Kherson residents were forced to listen to pro-Russian radio stations for news.

Ukraine says Russia’s goal is to “make its false propaganda the undisputed source of information”.

The new regional government is also phasing out the Ukrainian currency – the hryvnia – and introducing the Russian ruble. The four-month transition period began on May 1, when the authorities banned the transfer of Ukrainian money to banks.

Residents in Kherson told the BBC that military officials had begun to pay pensions in rubles, but that many were trying to find secret ways to challenge Russian forces, including replacing the ruble with the ruble.

Does Russia intend to hold a referendum?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned Kherson residents that Russia intends to hold a referendum in that region to decide on its separation from Ukraine and the formation of a “people’s republic”. Zelensky advised people not to provide the Russian authorities with personal data, such as passport numbers, as it could be used to falsify votes.

The British Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update in April that the referendum would be a way for Russia to justify its occupation of Ukraine. But former mayor Kulekhaev claimed that it would be illegal because Kherson is still officially part of Ukraine.

President Zelensky said the referendum was part of Russian plans to break up Ukraine and create “pseudo-republics” across the country. Apparently confirming the scenario, the deputy head of the Kherson government formed by Moscow, Kirill Strimosov, said on Wednesday (11/5) that “a request will be submitted to make the Kherson region a matter of the Russian Federation.”

Shortly thereafter, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that local residents would have to decide their future – citing Crimea as an example.

Russia held a referendum after annexing Crimea in 2014, but international bodies ruled the vote invalid.

Russia held a referendum after annexing Crimea in 2014, but international bodies ruled the vote invalid.

Photo: Reuters/BBC News Brazil

How Russia changed the life of the separatist regions of Ukraine?

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a referendum that the United Nations General Assembly decided to invalidate.

Moscow established a link between Crimea and southern Russia, transporting weapons, introducing the ruble and eliminating the hryvnia. The pro-Russian press is now dominant on the peninsula.

But the situation in Kherson is closer to Crimea than to two regions of eastern Ukraine that were captured by pro-Russian forces shortly after the peninsula’s annexation. Pro-Russian local leaders created the so-called people’s republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, where they also adopted the ruble and provided Russian passports to the population.

Russia pays pensions and salaries to government employees in the region. In schools, children learn according to the Russian curriculum, and Ukraine has complained to Moscow about the “russification” of eastern Ukraine.

So far, there is no indication of the annexation of Kherson, only the creation of a people’s republic. Similar votes in Luhansk and Donetsk were largely dismissed in May 2014, for fraud and illegality.

But there were rumors that Russia was planning to hold more referendums in the two regions regarding its annexation by Russia. Ukraine said all votes deemed fraudulent would be invalid.