The Russian-controlled administration in the Ukrainian city of Kherson has said it plans to request annexation by Moscow, a move that would confirm the Kremlin’s permanent occupation of Ukrainian territory captured since February.
If Russia attempts to annex the Kherson region it would make a peace agreement more unlikely, as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said that Russia’s withdrawal to prewar positions was a precondition for any successful negotiation.
It is not clear whether the Kremlin will go forward with an annexation or is using it as a threat to put pressure on Kyiv.
The annexation call was made on Wednesday by Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the military administration Russia put in place to run Kherson in late April. Russia occupied Kherson in March and seized its city council building in late April.
“The city of Kherson is Russia; there will be no the KNR [Kherson People’s Republic] on the territory of the Kherson region, there will be no referendums,” said Stremousov in a televised briefing. “It will be a single decree based on the appeal of the leadership of the Kherson region to the president of the Russian Federation, and there will be a request to make [Kherson] into a full-fledged region of the Russian Federation.”
Stremousov previously said that Kherson would begin using the rouble currency, a move seen as creeping integration into Russia.
Russian officials who have visited Kherson have promised not to abandon the region. “Russia is here to stay forever,” said Andrei Turchak, secretary general of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, while visiting Kherson last week. “There should be no doubt about it. There will be no return to the past.”
But similar requests for annexation from territories such as the Russian-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic have languished for years, as the Kremlin has dangled integration while seeking to put pressure on Kyiv.
Putin began his new war in Ukraine by announcing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, territories with local administrations also controlled by Russia.
While there have been rumours they could hold new referendums to demand accession into Russia, that has not yet taken place. Local leaders say their model outcome is that of Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 after a referendum under a puppet government. But few Russians have a similar attachment to the Kherson, Donetsk, or Luhansk regions, or want to see them as part of the Russian Federation.
Turchak gave a careful answer when asked if Kherson would become part of Russia: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In any case, the status will be determined by the residents,” he said.
That view was echoed by the Kremlin on Wednesday, with its spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, saying any appeal should be “decided by the residents of the Kherson region … and residents of the Kherson region should also determine their fate”. He also said that the decision would have to be vetted by lawyers and legal experts to be “absolutely legitimate, as it was with Crimea”.
Analysts have said that the call for annexation without a referendum indicated the weakness of the Russian position in those regions. Russia “doesn’t feel stable on occupied areas, they can’t afford even fake referendum as in 2014. No local support at all,” wrote Maria Zolkina, a political analyst at Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv-based thinktank.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, vowed that the Kherson region would be recaptured before any annexation could take place. “The invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter. The Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson, no matter what games with words they play,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser.