A breakaway referendum in the Russia-controlled Ukrainian city of Kherson would “almost certainly” be rigged, UK defence chiefs have warned.
The Kremlin-imposed military-civilian administration in the key southern city has announced it will request annexation of the Kherson region by Russia.
It came amid speculation among Ukrainian authorities that the puppet-government would hold a “referendum” attempting to declare the region independent.
But in its latest intelligece update on Saturday, the Ministry of Defence said the results of an accession referendum in Kherson would “almost certainly” be manipulated.
It said was Russia is “highly likely” to have plotted rigged referendums in its original invasion plans to place the majority of regions of Ukraine under long-term pro-Moscow control.
“The fact that Russia has only succeeded in imposing a pro-Russian local leadership in Kherson highlights the failure of Russia’s invasion to make progress towards its political objectives in Ukraine,” the MoD said.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine - 14 May 2022
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/tAa8K8A12w
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/Ya1mzfvjY4
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) May 14, 2022
“If Russia carries out an accession referendum in Kherson, it will almost certainly manipulate the results to show a clear majority in favour of leaving Ukraine,” defence chiefs added.
“Citizens in the Kherson region are likely to continue to demonstrate their opposition to Russian occupation.”
According to reports in Russia, one of Moscow’s most senior politicians visited the Kherson to “discuss social and healthcare needs”.
The state-controlled RIA agency on Saturday quoted Anna Kuznetsova, deputy head of Russia’s Duma or lower house of parliament, as saying: “We are here ready to provide all kinds of assistance.”
Kherson is the first region that Moscow is thought to be keen to annexe after Russia said in April it had gained full control of the region.
The Kremlin has said it was up to residents living in the region to decide whether they wanted to join Russia.
The port city provides part of the land link between the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and Russian-backed separatist areas in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has revealed “very complex negotiations” are taking place to remove wounded Ukrainians trapped inside the besieged Azovstal steelworks in the southern city of Mariupol.
“Very complex negotiations are under way on the next phase of the evacuation mission - the removal of the badly wounded [and] medics,” he said in his latest late-night address.
“We are doing everything to evacuate all the others, every one of our defenders,” Mr Zelensky said.
He added that Kyiv was using “influential intermediaries” in the negotiations.
The deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, the last Ukrainian army unit holding out in the ruined port of Mariupol, said on Friday that his troops will resist Moscow’s forces “as long as they can,” despite shortages of ammunition, food, water and medicine.
Speaking during an online session of the Kyiv Security Forum, Sviatoslav Palamar said Russian forces continued to storm the Azovstal steelworks, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, where his forces are hunkered down.
“We continue to resist and follow the order of our senior political leaders to hold the defense. We are holding the defense and continue fighting despite everything,” he said.
Speaking to a panel including U.S. generals Philip M. Breedlove and Wesley K. Clark, Mr Palamar appealed to the US to help evacuate around 600 wounded soldiers from the Azovstal plant, and help extract the rest of the Ukrainian force.
Members of the Azov Regiment holed up at the plant have repeatedly refused to surrender to Moscow, citing fears of being killed or tortured.