Shift to ruble in Kherson fuels concerns about Russia’s aims in occupied region

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Civilians in Russian-controlled Kherson are facing an Internet blackout and a plan to use Russian currency — in possible signs that Moscow intends to exert long-lasting influence over the region in southern Ukraine.

As Russian officials announced that the transition to Russian currency for the Kherson region would begin May 1, an intelligence update released by Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia was trying to legitimize “its control of the city and surrounding areas through installing a pro-Russian administration.”

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. The Defense Ministry stated that Russia would retain control of the territory if it wanted to secure its grip on Crimea, and enable its troops to make advances in the west and north.

Rumors have swirled for weeks that Russian forces in Kherson were seeking a referendum, as Kyiv has warned. The Washington Post has not independently verified these reports.

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. The ruble and the Ukraine’s currency were expected to be in circulation for these 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 Ukrainian government said, meanwhile, that Internet connections and mobile phone networks have gone down in the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region. The State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine said in a statement that 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 that “the question of Kherson region returning to Ukraine” was “impossible.”

Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev — whom 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 has done in 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. Kolykhaiev stated that there is no reason [for Russia] to create another “quasi-republic”.

David L. Stern and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.

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