KYIV, Ukraine — Moscow-installed authorities in an occupied Ukrainian region on Monday suggested plans for a referendum on joining Russia had been delayed.
The Kremlin meanwhile said its halting of gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline was due to Western sanctions hampering maintenance, after the key infrastructure was closed indefinitely for repairs.
Since the first weeks of Russia’s February invasion, Kherson and the southern region of Zaporizhzhia have been largely under Russia’s control and are now being forcefully integrated into its economy.
Moscow-backed authorities have been for several weeks talking of holding referendums to officially join occupied territories to Russia, as happened in the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But Kirill Stremousov, a pro-Moscow official in Kherson, told Russian state TV that “we will pause for now” despite preparing for a referendum due to “all the events that are occurring,” amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
He later moderated his comments, saying the move “was not a pause” because no precise date had been set.
“The referendum will take place no matter what. No one will cancel it,” Stremousov said in a video posted on Telegram.
Ukrainian forces have claimed gains in their counteroffensive in the south, saying they have recaptured several areas and destroyed targets including a pontoon bridge, an ammunitions depot and a Russian army control center.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Sunday the recapture of two villages in the south and one in the east, without giving their names.
The deputy head of the presidential administration, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, also tweeted a photo of a Ukrainian flag being raised in the village of Vysokopillia in the north of the Kherson region.
“The Ukrainian counteroffensive is making verifiable progress,” US-based research group the Institute for the Study of War said in a report, noting gains in Kherson and the eastern Donetsk region.
The Russian government is seeking to open two new factories to repair armored vehicles “in the interests of defense,” according to a decree by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin made public on Monday.
Ukraine’s southern command said its forces were trying to disrupt the Russian army’s “management of troop movements and logistics” through airstrikes and artillery fire.
Ukrainian forces added that they destroyed a warehouse where ballot papers for the referendum were stored.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Monday it continued to inflict heavy losses on the Ukrainian army.
After failing to capture Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russian troops withdrew from the northern part of the country and focused their attacks on the south and east.
‘Blame Western sanctions’
The Kremlin on Monday squarely blamed the “collective West — in this case the European Union, Canada and Britain” for the halt of Russian gas supplies to Germany, which has fueled fears in Europe of crippling winter shortages.
Russian gas giant Gazprom announced Friday that the Nord Stream pipeline due to reopen at the weekend would remain closed for more repairs, after “oil leaks” in a turbine.
As the sanctions have been tightened, Russia has reduced or halted supplies to different European nations, causing energy prices to soar.
Amid the backdrop of energy supply fears, Germany made a policy U-turn on Monday by saying it would keep two nuclear plants on standby beyond the end of the year.
The move, aimed at contributing to southern Germany’s electricity supply, partly delays a nuclear exit.
Russia’s deputy energy minister also warned that a plan by the Group of Seven industrialized nations to cap the price of Russian oil exports would sow “uncertainty” on the global market.
Alexander Novak spoke after the OPEC+ cartel agreed to cut production for the first time in more than a year in a bid to lift prices.
Meanwhile, the European Union signed a deal with Ukraine on Monday to release an additional 500 million euros ($497 million) in planned aid, for housing, education, and agriculture.
The European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — announced the package at a Brussels meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal.
In Kyiv, Ukraine’s power plants operator Energoatom said the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear site’s last working reactor had been switched off from the grid, after being disconnected from its last remaining power line due to shelling.
Fighting around the nuclear plant, Europe’s biggest, has stoked fears of an atomic disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Zaporizhzhia last week, with the UN nuclear watchdog’s chief saying the site had been damaged in fighting.
Ukraine has accused Russia of storing ammunition at Zaporizhzhia and deploying hundreds of soldiers there.
It also suspects Moscow intends to divert power from the plant to the nearby Crimean peninsula.