Kherson, under Russian occupation, in Ukraine, switches to the ruble and faces an internet blackout

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Kherson in southern Ukraine was the first major city to fall to Russian forces who invaded the country in late February. In the early days of the invasion, the city was surrounded and large parts cut off from water, electricity and access to food.

It was then widely believed that Russia would attempt to take control of Kherson permanently.

He could do this by installing a Russian-backed government as he did in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, removing local leaders and placing pro-Russian elites in control of territories wrested from Kyiv’s control or annexing the Kherson region to neighboring Crimea, itself annexed by Russia that same year.

Now, with internet and cellphones in the region shut down and an attempt to supplant the Ukrainian currency with the Russian ruble, it looks like Russia may be trying to carry out such a plan, giving it a potentially lasting control over a strategically crucial element. region of the country.

As Russian officials announced that the switch to the Russian currency for the Kherson region would begin on May 1, an intelligence update issued by the UK Ministry of Defense said Russia was trying to legitimize “its control of the city and surrounding areas by installing a pro-Russian administration”.

Taken together, these steps “probably indicate Russian intent to exert strong political and economic influence in Kherson over the long term”, the UK Ministry of Defense said. Lasting control of territory would secure Russia’s hold on Crimea and allow its forces to support advances in the north and west, the ministry said.

Russian activity in Kherson follows the “playbook of destabilization” used by Russia in the Donbass region and Crimea in 2014, Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, told the Post. That year, a disputed referendum in Crimea showed nearly 97% of voters favoring 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 transition of four to five months away 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] aid, first of all, to pensioners, socially unprotected segments of the population and, of course, state employees, ”said Stremousov in an interview with the Rossiya 24 TV channel.

The Ukrainian government has confirmed that Internet connections and mobile phone networks have declined in the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region. State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine said in a statement that it was a deliberate act, intended to “leave Ukrainians without access to the real information on the evolution of the war waged by Russia against Ukraine”.

NetBlocks, a civil society group that monitors internet access around the world, has also confirmed late Saturday on Twitter that “occupied southern Ukraine is now in the midst of a near total internet blackout.

The next Russian step, if the past is any guide, could be a controlled referendum designed to give the appearance of legitimacy to the Russian takeover.

Indeed, the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova post in mid-April that Moscow was printing ballots for a referendum to create a “People’s Republic of Kherson”, a claim that could not be verified by the Washington Post.

On April 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned residents of Kherson against sharing information – including passport information – with Russian forces. “It’s not to help you… It’s aimed at falsifying the so-called referendum on your land, if an order comes from Moscow to stage such a spectacle,” Zelensky said.

The aim of a referendum in Kherson would be to preserve the “veneer of legitimacy” of a direct annexation of the southern territories of Ukraine or recognition of their status as an independent state and their potential integration into Russia said Wolff. “From that perspective, it’s really a symbolic exercise.”

Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev – whom local authorities say has been replaced by the Russians – sketched out a different scenario in an interview published Thursday in Ukrainian newspaper NV.

He said he saw “no sign” that Russia would hold a referendum to declare a separate “Kherson People’s Republic”, as Moscow has done before in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

“What I see: there will be no referendum,” Kolykhaiev reportedly said. Instead, he said, Russia would “most likely” link the Kherson region with Crimea. “There’s no sense [for Russia] in creating another “quasi-republic”, Kolykhaiev said.

Kherson, a city of about 300,000 people on the Black Sea, is strategically important for Russia. Located directly at the top of the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia, Kherson is a gateway to southern Ukraine. It is home to key sea and river ports and sits 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 said on Sunday.

David L. Stern and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.

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