RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
The staged vote in the partly occupied regions in Ukraine's south could seek to declare a so-called "Kherson people's republic," similar to what the Kremlin did in 2014 in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions prior to declaring them part of Russia in February.
Such a move could also open the door for Moscow to begin drafting local men to fight alongside its forces in Ukraine, as it has already done through a mandatory mobilization of men aged 18 to 65 in separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine.
"I believe that any referendum that will be held on the territory of the Kherson region will be illegal, because the Kherson region is Ukraine," Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev told Current Time in an interview.
In occupied areas across southern Ukraine, Russia has replaced mayors with handpicked figures sympathetic to Moscow, with the exception of Kolykhayev in Kherson, who has been allowed to keep running the municipality in accordance with Ukrainian law.
The city that was home to some 300,000 people before the war fell with little combat early on and is one of the only main regional centers that Moscow has gained control of since its February 24 invasion. Many families have left to escape living under Russian occupation and nearby fighting, with Kolykhayev estimating that about 40 percent of the city's population has left.
Russian forces have also set up their headquarters in the city and gained access to a database of locals who have fought against Kremlin-backed forces in the Donbas since 2014, which they have used to conduct selective raids throughout Kherson.
Kolykhayev says that more than 200 people have disappeared so far in connection to their names being on a list and that an atmosphere of nervousness and fear has set in over the city as Russian forces have set up shifting checkpoints and restricted some people from leaving.
"There is an anxiety for people right now because [Russian security forces] always have lists on hand with names and license-plate numbers, which leads to searches," Kolykhayev said. "At 5 p.m., there is practically no one [on the streets]. The city is dying out [and] becoming more empty."
Kolykhayev said he was not aware of a timeline for any vote and Moscow hasn't commented publicly on referendum plans or what it intends to do with the large territory it holds in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya.
But the warnings from Kyiv and recent statements from Russian officials point toward broader ambitions from Moscow.
The acting commander of Russia's Central Military District, Rustam Minnekayev, was quoted by official state media on April 22 as saying that full control of southern Ukraine was a strategic goal for Moscow and it would even aim to link up the area to Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniester.
Similarly, Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency ran interviews with Dmitry Belik, a member of the Russian parliament, and Eyvaz Umerov, a pro-Moscow Crimean Tatar leader, where both called for absorbing the southern-controlled territories into Russia under an expanded federal district of Crimea, which the Kremlin illegally annexed in 2014 after staging a referendum there.
Achieving those goals would not only require Russia to succeed in its new strategy of encircling Ukraine's forces in the Donbas, but also being able to seize the coastal regions of Mykolayiv and Odesa, something that many analysts and Western military officials see as unlikely given the setbacks suffered by Russian forces so far.
Still, the Russian calls point toward more brutal fighting ahead in Ukraine and come after Mariupol's mayor accused Russia of hiding evidence of "barbaric" war crimes by burying the bodies of up to 9,000 civilians in mass graves, allegations supported by satellite images from the U.S. company Maxar.
Mariupol has been mostly leveled by shelling, bombing, and street fighting and Russian officials say that the city is under their control, despite a small pocket of Ukrainian troops holed up inside a metal works plant along with civilians.
In an interview with Current Time, Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that he mostly saw the recent statements by Russian military officials about controlling large areas of the south as "propaganda" and that the Kremlin is looking to reframe its war goals after failing in the first phase of the war.
"Of course, they will try to come up with some new scenarios, [but] all this will only do is escalate the conflict and continue the war," Podolyak said.
More 'Filtration Camp' Warnings
The stepped-up fighting and more explicit political objectives stated by Russian officials have also prompted renewed concerns from Kyiv that Russian forces are forcibly relocating Ukrainian citizens to Russia.
The Ukrainian government says more than 878,000 of its citizens were transported to Russia from besieged and battered cities, where they have been taken to so-called "filtration camps" in separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine before being brought to Russian territory.
The camps function as a type of processing center, where Ukrainians have described to RFE/RL and other media outlets how they were fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated before their documents were taken by Russian security personnel.
Russian officials have denied that they have forcibly moved any Ukrainians against their will. While some refugees said they went to Russia because other escape routes to western Ukraine were cut off, others have said that they were forced by Russian troops to go and are now facing difficulties leaving due to their documents being seized or logistical issues leaving the country after being relocated to more remote parts of Russia.
Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine's ombudsman for human rights, told Current Time that she was in contact with many Ukrainians who were brought to Russia and she is working with human rights groups in the country and international organizations to help get them to western Ukraine or countries in the European Union.
She also warned that there are growing reports of Ukrainians questioned by security forces about their views on the war and Russia at the camps and then taken away if they are deemed to be too pro-Ukraine.
"If our citizens do not pass the test, then they are labeled as 'bad elements' and sent elsewhere in Donetsk, where we no longer know their fate," Denisova said.
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