Russian-occupied Kherson, Ukraine switches to ruble and internet cut

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Civilians in Russian-ruled Kherson face new restrictions – including an internet blackout and a plan to use Russian currency – in possible signs that Moscow intends to exert lasting influence on the southern region of Ukraine.

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

Taken together, these measures “probably indicate Russia’s intention to exert strong political and economic influence in Kherson over the long term”, the UK Ministry of Defense said, adding that enduring control of the territory would ensure the security of Russia’s hold on Crimea and would allow its forces to support advances in the north and west.

Rumors have swirled for weeks that Kherson forces were seeking to hold a referendum, as kyiv 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’s fall, said there would be a four-to-five-month transition away from Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, which has been in use since 1996. The Ukrainian currency was expected to circulate alongside the ruble during these months.

Stremousov, Russia’s designated deputy head for 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] help, 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 internet connections and mobile phone networks had fallen in the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region. The statement, from Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, said it was a deliberate act, aimed at “leaving Ukrainians without access to real information about developments in Russia’s war against Ukraine”.

NetBlocks, a civil society group that monitors internet access around the world, confirmed late Saturday on Twitter that “occupied southern Ukraine is now in the midst of a near total blackout”.

Stremousov told Russian media RIA Novosti last week that “the issue of returning the Kherson region to Ukraine” was “impossible”.

Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev – whom local authorities say the Russians have replaced – said in an interview published Thursday with Ukrainian media outlet NV that he had seen “no sign” that Russia would hold a referendum to declare a “Kherson People’s Republic,” like Moscow had done with the Luhansk and Donetsk regions before.

“What I see: there will be no referendum,” Kolykhaiev reportedly said. Instead, he said Russia would “most likely” link the Kherson region with Crimea, which Kherson borders and Russia annexed in 2014. “It makes no sense. [for Russia] in creating another “quasi-republic”, Kolykhaiev said.

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

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