Ukrainian officials say Russia is running into trouble over plans to hold a referendum in occupied Kherson in Ukraine’s south as early as Wednesday.
Ukraine has said Russia plans to hold a vote in the region to try to win popular support for the creation of a new entity called the Kherson People’s Republic, which would mirror similar entities in Ukraine’s far east, around Donetsk and Luhansk, which were created eight years ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the independence of those two entities in February was among the Russian President’s key announcements in the days leading up to the launch of his attack on Ukraine two months ago.
But on Tuesday morning, Ukrainian Interior Ministry advisor Vadym Denysenko said that pro-Russian officials were struggling to find enough people to facilitate a popular vote in Kherson.
“They cannot even hold a mock referendum, as they did in 2014 in Luhansk and Donetsk, because they realize they do not have a critical mass of people [to support them], even just to get a picture for TV,” Denysenko said, adding, “Besides, there are no people who will be ready to work at the polling stations.”
Two officials in the region also told CNN that pro-Russian forces were finding it difficult to arrange a planned referendum.
Yurii Sobolevskyi, a deputy head of the Kherson regional council, told CNN that when votes took place in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, and in Crimea’s independence referendum the same year, many local officials had supported the pro-Russian initiative.
“This greatly simplified the task of holding a referendum and absorbing the territories [so they came under Russia’s influence]. It’s not like that here,” he said.
Another local official said a lack of support among regional councilors was holding up the preparation of lists of eligible voters and ballot printing but admitted a vote could still take place at some point.
“They will theoretically be able to hold it, but it will take time to prepare,” Hlan Serhii, a Kherson city council deputy, said.
In another development in Kherson on Tuesday, the Ukrainian administrator for the region said that Russian forces had installed a new local government.
Hennadii Lahuta, the Kherson regional administrator, made the announcement in a video posted to his social media accounts. The installation of the new government took place less than 24 hours after Russian forces took control of the Kherson City Council building, removing the elected government and replacing its security with Russian military troops.
According to Lahuta, a meeting was held at the Kherson City Council building on Tuesday, “to install the so-called ‘Mayor of the Kherson Regional Administration,’ Volodymyr Saldo and the ‘Head of the Kherson City Administration,’ Oleksandr Kobets.”
Saldo, a former mayor of Kherson, has been accused in the past of cooperating with the Russian KGB but has never been charged. Under martial law, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council banned his party, the Bloc of Volodymyr Saldo, for its alleged ties to Russia.
CNN reached out to Saldo for comment but did not received a response. CNN was unable to reach Kobets for comment.
The new Russian-installed government in Kherson mirrors similar action in Melitopol, another Russian-occupied city in southern Ukraine. In that city, armed men arrested the elected mayor as Russian troops installed their own mayor, who quickly began making pro-Russian moves, such as mandating the broadcasting of Russian television channels.