KYIV (NYTIMES) - The Kremlin signalled on Wednesday (May 11) that it could annex the strategically important southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, as the occupying authorities said they would prepare a formal request to President Vladimir Putin to absorb their region into Russia.
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Wednesday that "the residents of Kherson should decide" whether to join Russia, months after the city of Kherson, with a prewar population of about 290,000, became the first major city to fall to Russian forces after the invasion on Feb 24.
"Such fateful decisions must have absolutely clear legal grounds and standing - be completely legitimate just as it was in the case of Crimea," Peskov said, referring to the region that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, just hours after 97 per cent of voters there approved a referendum criticised as fraudulent.
Peskov, asked whether his statement that Kherson residents should decide their fate meant that Russia planned to hold a referendum there, said: "I said what I wanted to say. I said nothing about a referendum."
The effort to formally incorporate the region comes as Russian forces have stepped up repressive efforts in Kherson to quash its Ukrainian identity and to bring it firmly into Moscow's sphere of influence amid a flurry of protests by local residents.
Russian forces enforced a transition to the Russian rouble at the beginning of May and have raised Russian flags over government buildings, according to videos and photographs taken from the streets.
The Kherson region carries deep strategic significance: It is where the mighty Dnieper River flows into the Black Sea, and it is the source of a Soviet-era canal supplying water to Crimea.
The Kremlin's interest in the region shows that Russia's war aims extend well beyond Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region where the Russian military has focused its ground offensive and where Putin falsely claimed Russian speakers were in need of protection.
Unlike the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin appears to be laying the groundwork to take control of the Kherson region without even staging a referendum.
Kirill Stremousov, who was installed by Russian forces as deputy head of the Kherson region in April, said on Wednesday that the occupying "military-civilian administration" planned to call on Putin to declare their region part of Russia with the stroke of a pen.
"This will be one single decree based on the appeal of the leadership of the Kherson region to Russian President Vladimir Putin," Stremousov said in a news conference on Wednesday, according to the Russian state news agency Tass.
Stremousov also said in recent days that Kherson would "integrate with the Russian Federation as much as possible," and that residents would "have the right to obtain Russian citizenship and Russian passports."
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president's chief of staff, dismissed the notion that Kherson's occupying authorities could request to join Russia, saying that the "invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter."
"The Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson," he said on Twitter, "no matter what games with words they play."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of planning to hold a sham referendum in Kherson to bolster its illegitimate government, similar to the self-declared "people's republics" that Moscow-backed separatists established in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.
Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, warned this month that Russia planned to stage "sham" elections in Donetsk and Luhansk in mid-May, with a similar referendum in Kherson to follow.
"This is straight out of the Kremlin's playbook," Carpenter told reporters at the State Department.
The Russian takeover of Kherson has been met with widespread resistance and street protests from local residents. Some residents have been compelled to flee to nearby Ukrainian-held cities, like Odesa and Kryvyi Rih. The regional governor, Hennadii Lahuta, estimated on Tuesday that nearly half of the population had left since March.
Accounts from witnesses who have managed to leave Kherson describe an increasingly repressive environment, where Russian soldiers are ubiquitous in shops and on street corners, checking phones and abducting journalists, community leaders, local council members and activists.