TALLINN, Estonia — According to Russian state television, the future of the Ukrainian regions conquered by Moscow’s troops is all but decided: referendums on accession to Russia will soon take place, and the happy inhabitants abandoned by Kiev will to flourish in peace.
In reality, the Kremlin appears to be in no rush to close the deal on the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia and Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, although officials it has installed there have already announced plans for a vote to join Russia. to close.
As the war in Ukraine nears its six-month mark, Moscow faces multiple problems in the territory it occupies – from shattered civilian infrastructure in dire need of rebuilding as the colder weather looms, to guerrilla resistance and increasingly grueling attacks by Kiev’s armed forces preparing is preparing for a counter-offensive in the south.
Analysts say what could have been a clear victory for the Kremlin is turning into a muddle.
“It is clear that the situation will not stabilize for long,” even if referendums are eventually held, said Nikolai Petrov, senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program. “There will be a guerrilla movement, there will be underground resistance, there will be terrorist acts, there will be shelling. … At the moment there is the impression that even the Kremlin does not really believe that holding these referendums would draw a line under it.”
Moscow’s plans to take in conquered territories were clear from the start of the February 24 invasion. Several weeks later, separatist leaders of the self-proclaimed ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, recognized as independent states by the Kremlin, expressed plans to vote on joining Russia. While Moscow-backed forces control almost all of Luhansk, some estimates say that Russia and the separatists control about 60% of the Donetsk region.
Similar announcements followed from Kremlin-backed governments in the southern Kherson region, almost entirely occupied by Russians, and in the Zaporizhzhya region, much of which is under Moscow’s control.
While the Kremlin modestly says it is up to residents to decide whether they want to live formally in Russia or Ukraine, lower officials discussed possible dates for the vote.
Senior lawmaker Leonid Slutksy once mentioned July, though it didn’t happen. Vladimir Rogov, an official installed in Moscow in the Zaporizhzhya region, suggested the first half of September. Kirill Stremousov, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, spoke about planning for the end of the year.
With the summer coming to an end, there is still no date for the referendums. Pro-Russian officials in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya say the votes will take place after Moscow takes full control of the rest of the Donetsk region, but the Kremlin’s gains there have been minimal lately. Yet campaigns promoting the voices are reportedly in full swing.
Russian TV shows cities with billboards that read: “Together with Russia”. Stremousov posts almost daily from Kherson on social media about his travels around the region, meeting people adamant about joining Russia. In the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhya, the Moscow-installed government has already ordered an election commission to prepare a referendum.
Aside from the vote, there are other signs that Russia intends to stay.
The ruble was introduced alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia and has been used to pay out pensions and other benefits. Russian passports were offered to residents in an accelerated citizenship procedure. Schools are said to have switched to a Russian curriculum in September.
Russian license plates were given to car owners by the traffic police, with Kherson and Zaporizhzhya being assigned the Russian region numbers 184 and 185. The Russian Interior Ministry, which oversees the traffic police, did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment to clarify how that was legal, as both regions are still part of Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials and activists, meanwhile, paint a picture in stark contrast to Russian TV portrayal of a bright future for the occupied territories under Moscow’s generous care.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told the AP that 90% of the population in the province’s major cities has left. Devastation and misery “rules” in the cities and towns taken by Russia, he said, and there are only a few villages that are not under Moscow’s control after weeks of exhausting fighting.
Residents use “water from puddles” and build “a bonfire in the yard to cook food right next to garbage, Haidai said.
“Our people who manage to return home to collect their belongings do not recognize the towns and villages that used to prosper,” he added.
According to pro-Ukrainian activist Konstantin Ryzhenko, the situation is not so dire in the southern city of Kherson, just north of the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Kherson was captured early in the war without much destruction, so most of the infrastructure is intact.
But supplies of essential goods have been uneven and prices for food and medicines brought in from Russia have risen, Ryzhenko told the AP, adding that both are of “disgustingly low quality”.
At the beginning of the war, thousands of Kherson residents regularly protested the occupation, but mass repression forced many to flee the city or to hide their views.
“Demonstrations have not been possible since May. If you publicly express something pro-Ukrainian, an opinion on any subject, you are guaranteed to be detained, tortured and beaten there,” Ryzhenko said.
The mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, whose city in the Zaporizhzhya region was also occupied early in the war, echoed Ryzhenko’s sentiment.
Mass arrests and purges of activists and opinion makers with pro-Kiev views began in May, said Fedorov, who spent time in Russian captivity for refusing to cooperate. More than 500 people in Melitopol are still in detention, he told the AP.
Despite that intimidation, he estimated that only about 10% of those who remain in the city would vote to join Russia if a referendum takes place.
“The idea of a referendum has discredited itself,” Fedorov said.
Kherson activist Ryzhenko believes a referendum would be rigged because “they are already talking about online voting, voting at home. … So, you see, the legitimacy of this vote will be zero.”
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said that because so many people have left the occupied regions, “nothing comes close to a proper poll of the population about their preferences.”
But Ukrainian authorities should still consider such votes a serious problem, said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kiev-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies.
“After the referenda have taken place, Russia will consider the southern countries as part of its own territory and consider Ukrainian attacks as attacks on Russia,” Karasev said in an interview.
He said the Kremlin could also use the threat of referendums to put pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to agree to negotiate Moscow’s terms or risk “losing the south” and much of it. its vital access to the sea.
Zelenskyy has said that if Moscow continues to vote, there will be no more discussions of any kind.
In the meantime, Ukrainian forces continue sporadic attacks on the Russian military in the Kherson region. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Operational Command South reported that 29 “occupiers” were killed near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, as well as artillery, armored vehicles and a military supply depot.
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