Four provinces in Ukraine that are fully or partially controlled by Russia — Donetsk and Lugansk in the east as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south — are holding votes on whether to be annexed by Moscow.
The ballots have been dismissed as a “sham” by Kyiv and its Western allies.
A Ukrainian official said Sunday that the country’s southern region of Kherson, which fell to Russian troops early in their February invasion, would be recaptured by Kyiv’s forces by September.
“We can say that the Kherson region will definitely be liberated by September, and all the occupiers’ plans will fail,” Sergiy Khlan, an aide to the head of Kherson region, said in an interview with Ukrainian television.
The Ukrainian army, emboldened by deliveries of Western-supplied long-range artillery has been clawing back territory in the southern Kherson region in recent weeks.
“We can say that a turning point has occurred on the battlefield. We see that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are prevailing in their most recent military operations,” Khlan said.
“We see that our armed forces are advancing openly. We can say that we are switching from defensive to counteroffensive actions,” he added.
He said that Ukrainian strikes on two key bridges in the region, as well as attacks on Russian arms depots and command posts were part of preparatory work for a ground offensive.
“Now the key issue is getting more precision artillery strikes on the frontline to knock out the orcs (Russians) from their current positions.”
He added that Russian forces had not repaired the damaged Antonivka bridge and were experiencing difficulties as a result of moving heavy weapons toward Kherson city.
Russian forces seized the region’s main city, also called Kherson, on March 3. It was the first major city to fall following the start of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine in late February.
The region, important for Ukrainian agriculture, lies next to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
They said they have spent about 15 days sleeping in bomb basements as Russia’s offensive intensifies.
“Since this place has been captured, nobody is doing anything to evacuate us from here,” one of the students said in a video obtained by Channels Television. “Please we want to go home. Everybody is cold. In a normal life, we have heaters in our home. But in case of war, we are stuck underground where there is no heater.
“Please, talk to the mayor of Kherson, talk to the people of Russia. Let them come in agreement, so there will be ceasefire for us to get a green corridor. Please, I plead with you, we don’t have provisions anymore.”
Another student said about six Nigerians are not “feeling fine” because of the weather.
“There is no food to eat,” he said. “We are in a critical condition.”
The Federal Government has evacuated over 1,000 Nigerians back to the country since the Russian invasion began late last month.
On Saturday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama said another batch of 300 Nigerians, mostly Sumy-based Nigerian students, had been evacuated to Nigeria from Budapest.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials on Saturday accused Russia of planning a fake referendum on creating a pro-Moscow “people’s republic” in Kherson.
“Russians now desperately try to organize a sham ‘referendum’ for a fake ‘people’s republic’ in Kherson,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
Due to “zero popular support”, such a referendum “will be fully staged”, he added.
“Severe sanctions against Russia must follow if they proceed. Kherson is & will always be Ukraine,” the minister added.
Kuleba drew a parallel with Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014, when it held a referendum on joining Russia after deploying troops there.
The Kherson plan was following a “2014 playbook”, Kuleba said.
Ukraine’s ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova wrote on Telegram that Russian occupying forces were phoning lawmakers from the local legislature, asking them to vote for the plan.
Denisova said such a referendum would be illegal on the occupied territory, since under Ukrainian law any issues over territory can only be resolved by a nationwide referendum.
Russian troops have seized Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall in a devastating week-old war that has already created one million refugees.
The capture of the Black Sea city of 290,000 people, which just last year hosted NATO-supported war games, appeared a significant boost for Moscow as it readied for potential ceasefire talks on Thursday.
Russian “occupiers” were in “all parts” of Kherson, Ukrainian regional official Gennady Lakhuta conceded late on Wednesday.
After a three-day siege that left Kherson short of food and medicine, and struggling to collect and bury its dead, the town’s mayor also announced he was in talks with “armed guests.”
He had “made no promises” to the invading forces, but agreed to a night curfew and restrictions on car traffic.
“So far so good. The flag flying above us is Ukrainian. And for it to stay that way, these requirements must be met,” he said in a Facebook post.
Stalled elsewhere, Russia continues to make significant advances on the southern front, with troops breaking through in Kherson — opening the path west and north — and besieging the larger strategically vital port city of Mariupol.
There, mayor Vadym Boychenko reported hours of punishing bombardments that trapped civilians in a city now without light, water or heating as temperatures hover around freezing.
“Today was the hardest, cruellest of the seven days of this war,” he said. “Today they just wanted to destroy us all.”
Moscow’s victory in Kherson comes one week after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army marched into Ukraine from the north, east and south, training a vast arsenal of weaponry at Ukrainian cities.
Russian forces have sporadically bombarded civilian targets across the country, including the capital Kyiv and the majority Russian-speaking second city of Kharkiv, which is now coming under more intense attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the barrage of missiles, shells and rockets a “war crime” and the International Criminal Court has confirmed an investigation is underway.
Amid violence that has kindled memories of Europe’s blood-soaked past, one million Ukrainians have now fled across the border into neighbouring Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, according to the UN refugee agency’s rapidly rising tally.
“We left everything there as they came and ruined our lives,” refugee Svitlana Mostepanenko told AFP in Prague.
“They’re bombing even civilian houses where there are kids, small kids, children, they die now.”
The Russian army claimed on Wednesday it had taken control of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson as Moscow’s invasion of the pro-Western country entered its seventh day.
“The Russian divisions of the armed forces have taken the regional centre of Kherson under full control,” defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in televised remarks. He claimed that public services and transport were operating as usual.
“The city is not experiencing shortages of food and essential goods,” he added. He said talks were underway between the Russian army and local authorities on maintaining order, protecting the population, and keeping public services functioning.
Kherson’s mayor Igor Kolykhaiev said in a post on Facebook: “We are still Ukraine. Still firm.”
Apparently contradicting the Russian army’s claims, he said he needed to find a way to “collect the (bodies of the) dead” and “restore electricity, gas, water, and heating where they are damaged.”
“But I warn you right away: to complete these tasks today means to perform a miracle,” he added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last Thursday ordered troops to invade pro-Western Ukraine to “de-militarise” and “denazify” the country.
All in all, the Russian military damaged more than 1,500 military facilities in Ukraine, Konashenkov said on Wednesday, adding that 58 planes, 46 drones, and 472 tanks and other armoured vehicles had been destroyed.