Taken together, the moves “are likely indicative of Russian intent to exert strong political and economic influence in Kherson over the long term,” Britain’s defense ministry said, adding that enduring control over the territory would provide security for Russia’s grip on Crimea and allow its forces to sustain advances in the north and west.
Rumors have swirled for weeks that forces in Kherson were seeking a referendum, as Kyiv has warned, but have not been independently confirmed by The Washington Post.
Speaking to Russian state television, Kirill Stremousov, a pro-Moscow politician installed after the city fell, said there would be a four-to-five-month transition away from the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, which has been in use since 1996. Ukraine’s currency was expected circulate alongside the ruble for those months.
Stremousov, Russia’s designated deputy head of the Kherson region, 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] assistance, first of all, to pensioners, socially unprotected segments of the population and, of course, state employees,” Stremousov said in an interview with the Rossiya 24 TV channel.
The comments came as the Ukrainian government said that Internet connections and mobile phone networks have gone down in the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region. The statement, from the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine, said it was a deliberate act, aimed to “leave Ukrainians without access to the true information on developments in the war waged by Russia against Ukraine.”
NetBlocks, a civil society group that monitors Internet access worldwide, confirmed late Saturday on Twitter that “occupied south Ukraine is now in the midst of a near-total internet blackout.”
Stremousov said last week to the Russian news outlet RIA Novosti on Thursday that “the question of Kherson region returning to Ukraine” was “impossible.”
Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev — who local authorities say the Russians have replaced — said in an interview published Thursday in the Ukrainian news outlet NV that he saw “no signs” that Russia would hold a referendum to declare a separate “People’s Republic of Kherson,” as Moscow had done in with the Luhansk and Donetsk regions previously.
“What I see: There won’t be a referendum,” Kolykhaiev was quoted as saying. Instead, he said Russia would “most likely” link the Kherson region to Crimea, which Kherson borders and Russia annexed in 2014. “There’s no sense [for Russia] in creating another ‘quasi-republic,’ ” Kolykhaiev said.
— David L. Stern and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report