KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) - As the Soviet-era melody of the Russian national anthem filled the room, a small group of Ukrainians in this city seized by Russian troops nearly five months ago swore allegiance to Moscow before being handed freshly minted Russian passports.
"I love Russia. Glory to Russia!" said Igor Chaika, 58, one of the three, after pledging to defend the Russian Federation. Another, Alexandra Safronova, 92, wiped tears from her eyes. "I am happy. Thank you," she said after being handed a Russian passport by an armed man wearing a medical mask.
This week's ceremony in the city of Kherson, which took place beneath a portrait of President Vladimir Putin and Russia's coat of arms, a golden double-headed eagle, - is one of many that have taken place in Ukraine's southern Kherson region in recent weeks.
Russian-installed officials say more than 2,300 Russian passports have been handed out and more than 11,000 applications lodged in what Ukraine and the White House say is an illegal effort by Moscow to annex territory it has occupied as part of what they regard as an imperialist Russian land grab.
Moscow says it is prosecuting "a special military operation" to protect itself and defend Russian speakers who it says were persecuted by Ukrainian authorities, something Kyiv denies.
Control of the Kherson region gives Russia a land corridor from its border to Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and a canal used to supply Crimea with fresh water. Many of its pre-war population of 1 million have since fled.
Russian-installed officials say they plan a referendum, possibly in September, in which they expect the region to vote to become part of Russia. Ukraine says that vote, if it happens, will be illegitimate. It wants to take the area back by force.
For now though, the Russian flag flies above the main administration building in Kherson with a Russian armoured truck parked nearby for security.
Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Foreign Ministry, said Russia was handing out passports ahead of the referendum "in order to justify the occupation" so they could pretend it had decided to voluntarily join Russia, something he said would be totally untrue.
"We see that the Russian Federation is trying to absorb the territories. They are trying to set up occupation administrations," Nikolenko told Reuters.
Demand for Russian passports was very low, he said, and "not mainstream (popular) among the local population" but some elderly people felt obliged to get passports in order to access humanitarian aid.
The Kremlin has repeatedly told reporters on daily conference calls that its forces in Ukraine are liberating rather than occupying and that it is up to Ukrainians to decide their own futures. Getting a Russian passport is entirely voluntary, Russian-installed officials say.
The Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian-appointed administration in Kherson did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Nikolenko's assertions.
Kyiv was unlikely to punish people it perceived were forced to get Russian passports, said Nikolenko, though a new law might target Ukrainians who had got them in order to get jobs in the Russian-installed administration.
Prospective Russian citizens are processed at the rate of around 300 per day in 11 passport centres across the region where they queue to hand in their documents, which often include Soviet-era birth documents, say Russian-installed officials. Applicants are allowed to retain their Ukrainian citizenship.
During a visit to a passport office by Reuters reporters on Monday this week, an armed Russian soldier dressed from head to toe in camouflage with only his eyes visible ran a metal detector over anyone coming into the centre housed on the ground floor of a two-storey commercial building.
Outside, older people, mostly women, lined up to get in. Posters near the first reception desk proclaimed "Russia is here forever!" and "Into the Future together with Russia."
Sitting opposite the passport office on a bench, a man who only gave his name as Pedro said he had applied to get a Russian passport. He said the region was going through a difficult transitional period which might last six months, but that he was looking forward to the prospect of a Russian pension.
The average Russian pension is higher than in Ukraine, official data from both countries show.
"Maybe we'll live long enough to see a good moment in life when people will smile and sing songs," said Pedro.
Outside a government building, dozens of people on Monday queued to get a one-off cash handout from Russian-installed officials.
"10,000 roubles ($173) won't hurt", said Svetlana Stepanova, an 83-year-old pensioner standing in line. Stepanova said officials had drawn up lists of people eligible for the payment. Reuters could not determine what criteria needed to be met to get on such a list. The average monthly pension in Ukraine is around $120, according to the country's pension fund.
Not all locals feel so well treated by the city's new rulers.
Pasted on a lamppost in the city centre, was a home-made appeal for help.
"My father... is missing. Between 8 and 9 in the morning on June 7 they burst into his flat and took him away with a sack on his head. I ask everyone to help," read the flyer, posted by a woman who only gave her name as Anna.
Reuters could not immediately determine the details of the case but Russian-installed officials in the region have said that some Ukrainians who tried to frustrate Russia's efforts to root out people it regards as dangerous nationalists were targeted by law enforcement.
($1 = 57.5250 roubles)
(Reporting by Reuters reporters; Editing by Jon Boyle)