The Russian-occupied region of Kherson in Ukraine plans to ask President Vladimir Putin to incorporate it into Russia by the end of the year, TASS news agency reported on Wednesday, citing an official from the Russian-controlled administration there.
Russia said in April it had gained full control of the Kherson region, which is strategically important as it provides part of the land link between the Crimean peninsula, seized from Ukraine in 2014, and Russian-backed separatist areas in the east of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on April 23 that negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow would be at risk if Russia used "pseudo-referendums" to justify an annexation of the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia territories. Zelenskyy said such a move would mean that "everything that happened before, all those meetings of diplomatic groups - it's all fiction and political theater".
In 2014, a month after occupying Crimea in a lightning invasion, Moscow organized a referendum there - dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine and the West - that overwhelmingly backed annexation by Russia.
- How the Israeli army perceives the Russian-Ukraine war, 70 days in
- Meet the Israelis fighting in Ukraine's 'Foreign Legion'
- Victory Day in Israel: A new kind of Russia-Ukraine war
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". Moscow calls its military campaign a "special operation" to disarm Ukraine and protect its Russian-speakers from "fascists". Ukraine and the West say this is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked imperialist war of aggression.
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.