Kiev: When Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine in late February, the Russian president vowed his forces would not occupy the country. But as the invasion reached its 100th day Friday, Moscow seemed increasingly unwilling to relinquish the territory it has taken in the war.
The ruble is now an official currency in the southern Kherson region, alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia. Residents there and in Russia-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhia region are being offered expedited Russian passports. The Kremlin-installed administrations in both regions have talked about plans to become part of Russia.
The Moscow-backed leaders of separatist areas in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which is mostly Russian-speaking, have expressed similar intentions. Putin recognised the separatists’ self-proclaimed republics as independent two days before launching the invasion, and fierce fighting has been underway in the east for weeks as Russia seeks to liberate all of the Donbas.
The Kremlin has largely kept mum about its plans for the cities, towns and villages it has bombarded, encircled and finally captured. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said it will be up to the people living in seized areas to decide their status.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that enemy forces now control almost 20% of the country’s territory. Before the war, Russia controlled 7%, including the Crimea Peninsula and parts of the Donbas.
Residents of the cities of Kherson and Melitopol took to the streets to protest the occupation, facing off with Russian soldiers in plazas. Ukrainian officials warned that Russia might stage a referendum in Kherson to declare the region an independent state.
Petro Kobernyk, 31, an activist with a nongovernmental organization who fled Kherson with his wife, said Russian security forces are cracking down on pro-Ukrainian activists.
Hundreds of pro-Ukrainian activists, including my friends, are being held in the basements of security services, Kobernyk said by phone. Those who actively express their position are kidnapped and tortured, threatened and forced out of the region.
Russian forces keep people in an information vacuum, with Ukrainian websites no longer available, Kobernyk said.
His claims could not be independently verified.
But some in captured areas of Ukraine have welcomed a Russian takeover.
I’ve wanted to live in Russia since I was little, and now I realize I don’t even have to move anywhere, said Vadim Romanova, a 17-year-old from Mariupol.
In Russian-occupied cities in southern Ukraine, people with pro-Kremlin views replaced mayors and other local leaders who disappeared in what Ukrainian officials and media said were kidnappings. Russian flags were raised, and Russian state broadcasts that promoted the Kremlin’s version of the invasion supplanted Ukrainian TV channels.
The Russian ruble was introduced as the second official currency in both the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions at least in the parts under Russian control and pro-Russian administrations started offering a one-time social payment of 10,000 rubles (roughly USD 163) to local residents.
An office of Russia’s migration services opened in Melitopol, taking applications for Russian citizenship from residents of the captured southern regions through a fast-track procedure. The procedure was first implemented in 2019 in the rebel-controlled areas of the Donbas, where more than 700,000 people have received Russian passports.
Top Russian officials started touring the regions, touting the territories’ prospects for being integrated into Russia. Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visited Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in mid-May and indicated they could become part of our Russian family.
Senior Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian delegation in stalled peace talks with Ukraine, said that referendums on joining Russia could take place in the Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as early as July.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov was evasive when asked Friday whether Russian authorities planned to hold votes in those areas, saying that it would depend on the course of Russia’s offensive.
Tatyana Stanovaya, founder and CEO of R.Politik, an independent think tank on Russian politics, said she believes Putin doesn’t want to rush the referendums and run the risk of them being denounced as shams.
He wants the referendum to be real, so that the West can see that, indeed, Russia was right, the people want to live with Russia, Stanovaya said.
Ukrainian experts say it will not be easy for the Kremlin to rally genuine support in Ukraine’s south.
Volodymyr Fesenko, of the Kyiv-based Penta Center think tank, said most residents of the southern regions identify as Ukrainians much more strongly than the people in areas that are closer to Russia or have been led by the Moscow-backed separatists for the past eight years.