Putin plots staged referendum as Russia installs its own mayor in key Ukrainian city

Ukraine: Kherson protesters march towards Russian soldiers

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An intelligence briefing from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) says Moscow could seek a vote in Kherson as an attempt to vindicate the city as a breakaway republic akin to Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea. Russia claimed on Tuesday that its armed forces had taken full control of Ukraine’s southern region of Kherson, although this has not been independently verified.

The city of Kherson, an administrative capital of about 250,000 people, was the first key urban centre to fall into the hands of Russian troops after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Russia’s Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said: “The armed forces of the Russian Federation have taken full control of all the territory of Kherson region.”

Moscow has also reportedly installed its own mayor in Melitopol after its predecessor, Ivan Fedorov, was allegedly abducted on March 11.

The area’s regional administration said former member of the city council, Galina Danilchenko, was now the mayor of Melitopol, according to reports.

The mayor of Dniprorudne, Yevhen Matveyev, has reportedly been captured by Russian forces, according to the MoD intelligence briefing.

Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted: “Russian war criminals abducted another democratically elected Ukrainian mayor, head of Dniprorudne Yevhen Matveyev.

“Getting zero local support, invaders turn to terror. I call on all states & international organisations to stop Russian terror against Ukraine and democracy.”

Deputy head of the local council in Kherson, Sergey Khlan, said in a social media post: “The creation of the (republic) will turn our region into a hopeless hole without life or a future.”

Protesters took to the streets of Kherson in support of president Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday.

Teacher, Artem Ivanov, 42, said Russian soldiers shot bullets into the air as people gathered in the city centre.

He said: “There were a lot of people, around 5,000, although I can’t say exactly because it was too difficult to calculate.

“The people held Ukrainian flags and posters with the words ‘Russian soldiers go back home’ and ‘We support President Zelensky’.

“The Russian soldiers were shooting at the air but the Kherson people did not stop and just continued protesting.”

The MoD intelligence briefing warns: “Russia is likely to make further attempts to subvert Ukrainian democracy as it attempts to consolidate political control of Ukraine.”

Analysts have long said part of Putin’s plan for Ukraine is to topple the government and install a puppet regime in order to secure control of Europe’s second-largest country.

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Days before the war began, Putin granted official recognition to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, signing friendship treaties with their leaders in a step that paved the way for Russia to send in troops and establish military bases.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian interior ministry said on Wednesday that about 20,000 people have managed to escape the besieged port of Mariupol in private cars.

Hundreds of thousands remain trapped by Russian shelling, many without heating, power or running water.

Russian forces have focused on Mariupol, constantly bombarding it for the past two weeks, as it is a key city on the Azov Sea coast which they must gain control of to push further west.

Ukrainian officials estimate that more than 2,500 residents have been killed in the fighting and at least 200,000 are in urgent need of evacuation.

In its latest intelligence briefing, the MoD said Russian forces are struggling to overcome the challenges posed by Ukraine’s terrain.

It added: “Russia’s continued failure to gain control of the air has drastically limited their ability to effectively use air manoeuvre, further limiting their options.

“The tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have adeptly exploited Russia’s lack of manoeuvre, frustrating the Russian advance and inflicting heavy losses on the invading forces.”

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