Russia plans to hold referendum to create "people's republic" in Ukraine

Russia plans to hold referendum to create "people's republic" in Ukraine

Since Russian forces took over the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March, residents have sensed that the occupiers have had a special plan for their town.

Locals guessed that Russia plans to stage a sham referendum to transform the territory into a pro-Moscow people's republic, despite a crescendo of warnings from Ukraine.

When Russian forces withdrew from occupied areas around Kyiv in early April, they left behind scenes of horror and traumatised communities.

The occupying forces have taken a different tack in Kherson, a large city with a major ship-building industry, located at the junction of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea.

The soldiers patrol and walk around silently. Olga, a local teacher, said they don't shoot people in the streets.

It is a little scary but there is no panic, people are helping each other, 63-year-old Alexander, who like other residents gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, said.

While the city has been spared the atrocities committed elsewhere, daily life is far from normal.

After Russia occupied Kherson and the surrounding region, all access was cut off.

The region is now suffering from a severe shortage of medicine, cash, dairy, and other food products, and Ukrainian officials warn that Russia has blocked all humanitarian assistance except its own, which troops are delivered before Russian state TV cameras, and many residents refuse to accept.

With no cash deliveries to Kherson's banks, the circulation of Ukraine's hryvnia currency is dwindling, and damaged communication networks mean credit card payments don't go through.

State-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported on Thursday that the Russian rouble would be introduced as a currency from May 1, and replace the hryvnia completely after a period of weeks.

Access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked and replaced by Russian state channels, and a strict curfew has been imposed.

Residents believe Russian troops have not yet besieged or terrorised the city — as they did in Bucha and Mariupol — because they are planning to hold a referendum to create a so-called People's Republic of Kherson, like the pro-Russian territories in eastern Ukraine.

Ballots have already been printed for a vote by early May, according to Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova.

In an address to the nation on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke directly to residents of occupied Kherson, accusing Russia of planning an orchestrated referendum and urging residents to be careful about personal data shared with Russian soldiers, warning that there could be attempts to falsify votes.

Since Kherson remained officially part of Ukraine, a vote would be illegal, according to the mayor of Kherson, Igor Kolykhaiev.

Russia hasn't said anything about plans to hold a referendum in Kherson.

In 2014, a disputed referendum in Crimea was widely believed to be falsified, and nearly 97 per cent of voters supported joining Russia.

Kherson is a strategically important city and the gateway to broader control of the south.

Russia could launch a more powerful offensive against other southern cities, including Odesa and Kryvyi Rih, from Kherson.