A Kremlin-installed leader of occupied Kherson announced on Monday that the region’s planned referendum on joining Russia has been “paused” because of a security situation.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-appointed military-civilian regional administration, was cited by the Russian state-owned news agency Tass as telling state television channel Rossiya-1 that local officials are focusing on protecting Kherson residents.
“We prepared for the vote, we wanted to have a referendum in the near future, but because of all the events that have happened now, I think that for now we will pause,” Stremousov said, adding that the main task at present is to “feed” and “protect” the people of Kherson.
Previously, Kremlin-installed officials had indicated that referendums on joining neighboring Russia would take place in September or October in Kherson, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and in the Zaporizhzhia region. The planned September referendums would have coincided with local Russian elections.
The pause on the referendums is the clearest indication yet that Russia’s defense of Kherson is not going as well as officials are portraying.
The Kherson region has been almost entirely under the control of Moscow’s forces since March, when it became the first major city to be seized by Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s troops after Ukraine was invaded on February 24. It has now become the focus of a reported counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.
Russian officials, including Stremousov, have maintained that the effort has so far been unsuccessful.
“Kherson was, is and will be a Russian city…all operations and counterattacks have failed,” Stremousov wrote on his Telegram channel earlier.
The Russian-installed leader also acknowledged Monday that the key Antonovsky Bridge has now become impassable to cars after continuous shelling by Ukrainian forces.
The bridge, as well as others in Kherson including the Darivka bridge and the Kakhovka Bridge have been targeted multiple times by Ukraine. High-precision munitions have been used in a bid to cut off supply routes and prevent them from being used by Russia to transport military equipment and personnel.
The Antonovsky Bridge is the only road bridge connecting Kherson, located on the western side of the Dnipro river, with a part of the Kherson region on the other side. It is the main crossing over the Dnipro, and is a key route for Russia to supply its forces occupying territory in Ukraine’s south.
“The bridge was closed, it is now impossible to drive over it,” Stremousov told state TV, adding that the bridge is now so damaged that only a motorcycle can cross it.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine claimed Monday that Russian forces have banned Kherson residents from crossing the Dnipro amid the ongoing counteroffensive, and are threatening to shoot those who attempt to do so.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address Sunday night that as part of Kyiv’s counteroffensive, a settlement in the Donetsk region had been liberated along with two more in the south of the country.
He did not specify which settlements had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces.
Newsweek has contacted the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries for comment.