The top Russian-installed official in a region of south Ukraine partly under Moscow’s control said on Thursday it would hold a referendum in early autumn on whether to become part of Russia.
The announcement by Evgeny Balitsky, head of the occupation administration in Zaporizhzhia, marked a further step towards the russification of areas of Ukraine that Moscow has seized by force, and where it is encouraging residents to apply for Russian passports.
“Mechanisms are being worked out. The referendum will determine what the inhabitants of the Zaporizhzhia region want and how they want to live,” he said.
The RIA Novosti news agency quoted another official as saying the expected date was the first half of September.
Russia says it was forced to send its army into Ukraine to demilitarise and “denazify” the country – arguments dismissed by Kyiv and the West as pretexts for an illegal land grab.
Russia and its proxies have seized the majority of the Zaporizhzhia region along Ukraine’s southern coast, but Ukraine’s military still controls the northern part including the city of Zaporizhzhia, the largest urban centre and home to more than half of the region’s pre-war population.
Zaporizhzhia lies beyond the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine where Russia says it is fighting to support the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – breakaway entities that are recognised by only Russia, Syria and North Korea.
Russia’s proxies in Kherson, another occupied region north of Crimea, are also planning a referendum on joining Russia later this year.
The Kremlin said the votes are a matter for the regional officials and has not commented on the prospect of the entities joining Russia.
Russia’s ambassador to Britain said last week Russian forces were unlikely to withdraw from the swathe of land across Ukraine’s southern coast that its forces have seized since the Feb. 24 invasion.