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 counter-offensive.
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.
Ukrainian forces have claimed gains in their counter-offensive in the south, saying they have recaptured several areas and destroyed targets including a pontoon bridge, an ammunition depot and a Russian army control centre.
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 counter-offensive is making verifiable progress,” US-based research group the Institute for the Study of War said, noting gains in Kherson and the eastern Donetsk region.
The Russian government is seeking to open two new factories to repair armoured vehicles “in the interests of defence”, according to a decree by 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 air strikes and artillery fire.
Ukrainian forces added that they destroyed a warehouse where ballot papers for the referendum were stored.
Russia’s defence ministry said 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 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 fuelled fears in Europe of crippling winter shortages.
Russian gas giant Gazprom announced Friday the Nord Stream pipeline, due to reopen at the weekend, would remain shut 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 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 industrialised 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 to release a further 500 million euros ($497 million) in planned aid, for housing, education and agriculture.
As Britain, a strong supporter of Ukraine under former premier Boris Johnson, named Liz Truss as his replacement, Zelensky called on the new leader to help Kyiv “thwart all Russian destructive efforts.”
Zelensky also on Monday spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, who reiterated widespread concern over the situation at the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear site, underscoring “the imperative need to preserve safety” at the plant.
Ukraine’s power plants operator Energoatom said the site’s last working reactor had been switched off from the grid after being disconnected from its 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, Rafael Grossi, saying the site had been damaged in fighting.
Grossi will on Tuesday issue a report about nuclear safety in Ukraine that will include the mission’s findings, the IAEA said, and he will brief the United Nations Security Council on the same day about the visit.
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