This is an allegation for now, with no reporting to confirm it. But if it happens, it’ll be a case of Russia following its own playbook. In 2014, the last time Moscow tried to carve off pieces of Ukraine, it held three separate referenda to give its war of conquest a patina of democratic legitimacy. After its military occupied Crimea, a referendum was held there in which residents (supposedly) voted to formally leave Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation. Referenda were also held in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces in the Donbas, with each (supposedly) voting to become an independent republic.
The Nazi Anschluss of Austria was also put to a referendum. It’s an old imperialist trick designed to let the invader claim that he’s acting in accordance with the will of the people. It’s not really “aggression” if your new subjects willingly submit to your authority, is it?
Ukraine’s human rights commissioner says she has reason to believe Russia’s set to do it again in the southern city of Kherson, the one major Ukrainian population center that’s been occupied since the first weeks of the war. The timing is interesting for several reasons.
Human rights commissioner Lyudmila Denisova said Russian forces were distributing propaganda material telling people in occupied Kherson that Moscow was acting for their benefit.
She said leaflets handed out “blame the Ukrainians themselves and their chosen government” for the aggression against their country, echoing the Kremlin’s messaging about the invasion…
Ms Denisova said there was evidence that Russia was planning a … vote in the Kherson region in early May, citing witnesses who said ballot papers were already being prepared at a local printing house…
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry meanwhile said Russia was planning to falsify results by collecting personal data on residents under cover of distributing humanitarian aid.
None of these referenda are legal under the Ukrainian constitution, which reportedly and sensibly requires a national vote in order to approve of any territorial changes. And no one except Russia takes them seriously since the balloting will surely be tampered with and/or the population, afraid of Russian military reprisals if it votes the wrong way, will feel coerced into voting for “independence.” But Putin is looking for victories in Ukraine and having Kherson pretend-secede from Ukraine would qualify as one, at least on Russian state media.
Which brings us to the timing:
BREAKING: Ukraine says that Russia is planning a referendum in Kherson, which will create a Donetsk and Luhansk style people's republic. The referendum will likely be held from May 1 to 10.
— Samuel Ramani (@SamRamani2) April 17, 2022
Why does “May 1 to 10” sound familiar? Ah, right: It’s because Russia holds its annual “Victory Day” celebration to commemorate the Nazis’ defeat each year on May 9. Observers have speculated that Putin is keen to have some sort of victory in Ukraine to tout at this year’s parade but the calendar, and the Ukrainian army, aren’t cooperating with him. No one expects Russia to conquer the Donbas in the next three weeks, which is how much time they have before Victory Day, so they need a Plan B. A rigged referendum held around that time establishing the “People’s Republican of Kherson” might be it.
Ukrainian media claims that Russia is planning some fireworks for its little democracy pageant in the city too:
The relevant statement was made by Odesa Regional Military Administration Head Serhii Bratchuk on Telegram, an Ukrinform correspondent reports.
“Near the Antonivskyi Bridge, they are deploying the Grad systems to shell Kherson and accuse the Armed Forces of Ukraine of that. This should be the reason for ‘saving’ the city through holding a pseudo-referendum. We want to emphasize that the Ukrainian military never open fire on civilian houses. It is important to make such plans public,” Bratchuk noted.
A false-flag operation in Kherson that’s blamed on Ukrainian forces would let Russia say, “See? The people are voting for independence because they’re enraged at the Ukrainian forces who are brutalizing them.” No one outside Russia takes any of this seriously. Inside Russia I’m sure it’s a different story.
The clock is running on Putin in another way besides the May 9 target, though. He may want to have a referendum in Kherson on the books soon because it’s unclear how long Russia will be able to hold the city. Note that the UK’s map of the conflict finds the two sides contesting the area around it:
NEW: Russia’s military brass is “concerned” by the time it is taking to seize Mariupol: British Defense Intelligence assessment
Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol has forced has Russia to divert more troops and supplies to hold their positions, slowing 🇷🇺 advance elsewhere in 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/z1obqBcWzU
— Jack Detsch (@JackDetsch) April 18, 2022
Ukrainian media claims their forces recently pushed deeper into Kherson province, towards the city of Kherson. If Russia doesn’t hold an “independence” vote there soon, it may be back in Ukrainian hands before they get the chance.
Here’s Russian state TV in full cope mode, insisting that the war is slow going for their guys because they’re not really fighting Ukrainians, they’re fighting all of NATO. Exit question: Is the referendum in Kherson a (partial) solution to Russia’s manpower problems? Quote: “Residents have expressed concern that they will be mobilised into Russia’s armed forces if it succeeds in orchestrating a pro-Kremlin result, the Ukrainian ministry said.”
Watch what happens when one pundit on Russian state TV tries to ask why it's taking so long for Russia to win in Ukraine: head of RT Margarita Simonyan nearly pecks his head off, as she argues that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine. He quickly backs down: "I didn't complain!" pic.twitter.com/4wBMSn8nZl
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) April 16, 2022
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