Fate of Ukrainian lands held by Russia still seems unclear

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) – According to Russian state television, the future of regions of Ukraine captured by Moscow’s forces is almost decided: Referendums to join Russia will soon be held there, and the happy residents who were abandoned by Kyiv be able to prosper in peace.

The Kremlin actually appears to be in no rush to seal the deal on the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, although the officials it installed there have already announced plans to vote to join Russia.

As the war in Ukraine approaches six months, Moscow faces multiple problems in the territory it occupies: from a pulverized civilian infrastructure in urgent need of rebuilding as the cold weather approaches, to the guerrilla resistance and increasingly debilitating attacks by Kyiv’s military forces that have been preparing for a counteroffensive in the south.

Analysts say what could have been a clear victory for the Kremlin is turning into something of a muddle.

“It is clear that the situation will not stabilize for a long time,” even if referendums are eventually held, says Nikolai Petrov, a senior fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme. “There will be the guerrilla movement, there will be clandestine resistance, there will be terrorist acts, there will be bombings. … Right now, the impression is that even the Kremlin doesn’t really believe that holding these referendums would draw a thick line under it.”

Moscow’s plans to incorporate captured 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, which the Kremlin recognized as independent states, expressed plans to hold votes to become part of Russia. Although Moscow-backed forces control almost all of Luhansk, some estimates say Russia and the separatists control about 60 percent of the Donetsk region.

Similar announcements followed from the Kremlin-backed administrations of the southern Kherson region, which is almost entirely occupied by Russians, and the Zaporizhzhia region, large swathes of which are under Moscow’s control.

Although the Kremlin coyly says it is up to residents to decide whether they want to formally live in Russia or Ukraine, lower-level officials have discussed possible dates for the vote.

Senior lawmaker Leonid Slutksy mentioned it once in July, though it didn’t happen. Vladimir Rogov, an official stationed in Moscow in the Zaporizhzhia region, suggested the first half of September. Kirill Stremousov, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, spoke of scheduling it before the end of the year.

As the summer winds down, there is still no date for the referendums. Pro-Russian officials in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia say the vote will take place after Moscow takes full control of the rest of the Donetsk region, but the Kremlin’s gains there have been minimal recently. Even so, the vote promotion campaigns are well underway.

Russian television shows cities with billboards proclaiming “Together with Russia.” Stremousov reports from Kherson almost daily on social media about his travels in the region, where he meets people determined to join Russia. In the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhia, the administration installed in Moscow has already ordered an election commission to prepare for a referendum.

Separately, there are other signs that Russia plans to stay.

The ruble has been introduced along with the Ukrainian hryvnia and has been used to pay pensions and other benefits. Russian passports were offered to residents through a fast-track citizenship procedure. Schools were reported to have switched to a Russian curriculum from September.

Traffic police gave Russian number plates to car owners, with Kherson and Zaporizhzhia assigned Russian region numbers 184 and 185. The Russian Interior Ministry, which oversees the traffic police, did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press to clarify what that was. legal, given that both regions are still part of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials and activists paint a picture that contrasts sharply with the Russian television portrayal of a bright future for the occupied territories under Moscow’s generous care.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told AP that 90 percent of the population of the province’s major cities has left. Devastation and misery “reign” in Russian-occupied cities and towns, he said, and there are only a few villages not under Moscow’s control after weeks of grueling fighting.

Residents use “puddle water” and make “a bonfire in the yard to cook food, right next to the garbage,” Haidai said.

“Our people who manage to return home to collect their belongings do not recognize towns and villages that once flourished,” he added.

The situation is not as dire in the southern city of Kherson, which lies just north of the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, according to pro-Ukraine activist Konstantin Ryzhenko. Kherson was captured without much destruction early in the war, so most of its infrastructure is intact.

But supplies of essential goods have been patchy, and prices for food and medicine 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 massive crackdowns forced many to flee the city or hide their views.

“The demonstrations have been impossible since May. If you publicly express something in favor of Ukraine, an opinion on any issue, you are guaranteed to be arrested, tortured and beaten there,” Ryzhenko said.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, whose city in the Zaporizhzhia region was also occupied early in the war, echoed Ryzhenko’s sentiment.

Mass arrests and purges of activists and opinion makers with pro-Kyiv views began in May, said Fedorov, who spent time in Russian captivity for refusing to cooperate. More than 500 people in Melitopol remain in captivity, he told AP.

Despite this intimidation, he estimated that only 10% of those remaining in the city would vote to join Russia if a referendum were held.

“The idea of ​​a referendum has been discredited,” Fedorov said.

Kherson activist Ryzhenko believes that a referendum would be manipulated because “they are already talking about voting online, voting at home. … Therefore, you understand, the legitimacy of this vote will be null”.

Russian political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin said that because so many people have left the occupied regions, “there will be nothing close to a proper survey of the population about their preferences.”

But Ukrainian authorities have yet to see these votes as a serious problem, said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kyiv-based Institute for Global Strategies think tank.

“After the referendums, Russia will consider the southern lands as part of its own territory and will consider Ukraine’s attacks as attacks on Russia,” Karasev said in an interview.

He said the Kremlin could also be using the threat of referendums to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept negotiations on Moscow’s terms or otherwise risk “losing the south” and much of the its vital access to the sea.

Zelenskyy has said that if Moscow goes ahead with the votes, there will be no talks of any kind.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continue sporadic attacks against the Russian army in the Kherson region. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported the death of 29 “occupiers” near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, as well as the destruction of artillery, armored vehicles and a military supply depot .


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