Maxar satellite imagery overview of Kherson Airfield and deployments in Kherson, Ukraine, on April 7. (Maxar Technologies/Getty Images)

Russian troops have taken control of the council in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Kherson as they prepare to hold a poll on the future of the wider region, asking people to vote on its “independence.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the plan as a “sham referendum.”

It’s a move straight out of Russia’s war playbook. 

A similar referendum was held in Crimea in 2014, providing a pretext for Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula just days later.

The UN General Assembly called the Crimean referendum invalid. Western countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union, have also called the annexation and the referendum illegal.

Separately, Russian-backed separatists held their own votes in 2014, after declaring two areas in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region as independent.

The decision by the Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize these two entities — self described as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics — as independent was seen as the opening salvo in Russia’s war on Ukraine in late February. 

Another Russian-supported breakaway region, South Ossetia in Georgia, in March also announced plans to hold referendum on joining Russia. Georgia said such move was “unacceptable.”

Following the same script, Russia is now calling for the Kherson region to become “the Kherson People’s Republic.”

Kherson is a strategically important city on an inlet of the Black Sea with a population of nearly 300,000. Its citizens have continued defying Russia by staging protests and marches even after occupying forces took over the city center. 

President Zelensky has hailed his people’s refusal to give their backing to Russia’s forces. 

“People [in occupied towns] have showed with their protest their attitude towards the occupiers; [they have] showed that Ukraine will definitely win,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address Monday. 

Addressing the referendum planned by the Russians, Zelensky said:

Russia wants to stage a sham ‘referendum’ somewhere on our land? Even if they try, it will be as shameful as everything else that was ‘created’ in Moscow to support the occupation of Ukraine.”

Russian forces have occupied the Kherson region since the opening weeks of the war, but, according to Kherson regional deputy Yuri Sobolevsky, they have until Monday “allowed” the city hall to function in a “reduced format” under Ukrainian control. 

That is no longer the case. Kherson mayor Igor Kolykhaev said on his Facebook page that “armed men entered the building of the Kherson City Council, took the keys and replaced our guards with their own.” 

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