(Reuters) -The Russian-occupied region of Kherson in Ukraine plans to ask President Vladimir Putin to incorporate it into Russia by the end of 2022, Russia’s TASS news agency reported on Wednesday, quoting the military-civilian administration there.
Kherson is the first region set to be annexed since Moscow began its military campaign in February saying it needed to disarm Ukraine and protect its Russian-speakers from “fascists”. That rationale has been dismissed by Ukraine and the West as a baseless pretext for an imperialist war of aggression.
The Kremlin said it was up to residents living in the region to decide whether they wanted to join Russia.
But Hennadiy Lahuta, the ousted Ukrainian governor of the Kherson region, told reporters in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro that the population wanted only “a speedy liberation and return to the bosom of their homeland, their mother – Ukraine”.
Russia said in April it had gained full control of the region, which has seen sporadic anti-Russian protests.
Kherson, home to a port city of the same name, provides part of the land link between the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and Russian-backed separatist areas in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said around that time that negotiations with Moscow would be at risk if Russia used “pseudo-referendums” to justify an annexation of the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia territories.
In a late night video address on Wednesday, Zelenskiy condemned “these marginal people, who the Russian state has found to act as collaborators.” He said they were making statements of “cosmic stupidity”.
He added: “But no matter what the occupiers do, it doesn’t mean anything – they have no chance. I am confident that we will liberate our land and our people.”
In 2014, a month after occupying Crimea in a lightning invasion, Moscow organised a referendum there – dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine and the West – that overwhelmingly backed annexation by Russia.
Asked on Wednesday about Kherson joining Russia, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the residents must decide their own fate, but that such decisions needed a clear legal basis, “as was the case with Crimea”.
However, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-controlled military-civilian administration, was quoted by the RIA news agency as telling reporters:
“There will be no referendums because it’s absolutely unimportant, given that the referendum that was held absolutely legally in the Crimean republic is not accepted by the world community.”
The administration did not immediately return Reuters’ calls requesting comment.
In Dnipro, Lahuta said 300,000 of the region’s million or so inhabitants had left as a result of Russia’s takeover.
Ukraine has said there have been protests in Kherson against Russian occupation, and that a rally two weeks ago was dispersed with tear gas.
“After repeated injuries of people in Kherson, in Nova Kakhovka … fewer people began to protest because the enemy began to act more and more harshly, began to detain people,” Lahuta said.
Russia has already introduced the rouble currency in the Kherson region, to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia.
TASS cited the Russian-controlled administration as saying that pension bodies and a banking system would be created from scratch for the region, and that branches of a Russian bank could be open there before the end of May.
(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool)