TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — According to Russian state television, the future of Ukrainian regions captured by Moscow forces is all but decided: Referendums on joining Russia will soon be held there, and residents happy who have been abandoned by Kyiv to be able to prosper in peace.
In reality, the Kremlin seems in no rush to seal the deal on Ukraine’s southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, even though officials it installed there have already announced plans for a vote to join Russia.
As the war in Ukraine nears its six-month mark, Moscow faces multiple problems in the territory it occupies – from pulverized civilian infrastructure that urgently needs to be rebuilt as cold weather approaches, to resistance from the guerrillas and the increasingly debilitating attacks of the military forces of Kyiv who were preparing a counter-offensive in the south.
Analysts say what could have been a clear victory for the Kremlin is becoming something of a confusion.
“It is clear that the situation will not stabilize for a long time,” even if referendums do eventually take place, says Nikolai Petrov, senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “There will be guerrillas, there will be underground resistance, there will be terrorist acts, there will be bombardments. … Right now it feels like even the Kremlin doesn’t really believe that by holding these referendums it would draw a thick line underneath.”
Moscow’s plans to incorporate captured territories were clear from the start of the February 24 invasion. A few weeks later, the separatist leaders of the self-declared “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which the Kremlin has recognized as independent states, announced their intention to hold votes on joining Russia. While Moscow-backed forces control almost all of Lugansk, some estimates indicate that Russia and the separatists control around 60% of the Donetsk region.
Similar announcements followed Kremlin-backed administrations of the southern Kherson region, which is almost entirely Russian-occupied, and the Zaporizhzhia region, large swaths of which are under Moscow’s control.
While the Kremlin coyly says it’s up to residents to decide whether they officially want to live in Russia or Ukraine, lower-level officials have raised possible dates for the poll.
Senior lawmaker Leonid Slutksy mentioned July, although that didn’t happen. Vladimir Rogov, an official based in Moscow in the Zaporizhzhia region, suggested the first half of September. Kirill Stremousov, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, has spoken of scheduling it before the end of the year.
As the summer draws to a close, there is still no date for the referendums. Pro-Russian officials in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia 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 recently. However, the campaigns to promote the votes would be well advanced.
Russian television shows cities with billboards proclaiming “Together with Russia”. Stremousov reports almost daily from Kherson on social media about his travels in the region, where he meets people intent on joining Russia. In the part of Zaporizhzhia under Russian control, the administration based in Moscow has already ordered an electoral commission to prepare a referendum.
Aside from the vote, there are other signs Russia is considering staying.
The ruble was introduced alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia and was used to pay pensions and other benefits. Russian passports were offered to residents as part of an accelerated citizenship procedure. Schools reportedly adopted a Russian curriculum from September.
Russian license plates were given to car owners by traffic police, with Kherson and Zaporizhzhia assigned Russian region numbers 184 and 185. The Russian Interior Ministry, which oversees traffic police, did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press to clarify how it was legal, given that both regions are still part of Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials and activists, meanwhile, paint a picture that contrasts sharply with the Russian television portrayal of a bright future for the occupied territories under Moscow’s generous protection.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told AP that 90% of the population of the province’s major cities had left. Devastation and misery “reign” in the towns and villages seized by Russia, he said, and there are only a few villages that are not under Moscow’s control after weeks of grueling battles.
Residents use “water from puddles” and build “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 no longer recognize the towns and villages that once flourished,” he added.
The situation is not as dire in the southern city of Kherson, located just north of the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, according to pro-Ukrainian activist Konstantin Ryzhenko. Kherson was captured without too much destruction at the start of the war, so most of its infrastructure is intact.
But supplies of essential goods have been spotty and the prices of food and medicine imported from Russia have soared, Ryzhenko told AP, adding that both are of “disgusting quality”.
At the start of the war, thousands of Kherson residents regularly protested against the occupation, but mass repressions forced many to flee the city or hide their opinions.
“Protests have been impossible since May. If you publicly express anything pro-Ukrainian, an opinion on any topic, you are guaranteed to be taken to custody, tortured and beaten there,” Ryzhenko said.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, whose town in the Zaporizhzhia region was also occupied at the start of 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 served 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 around 10% of those remaining in the city would vote to join Russia if a referendum were held.
“The idea of a referendum has discredited itself,” Fedorov said.
Kherson activist Ryzhenko thinks a referendum would be rigged because “they are already talking about voting online, voting at home. … So, you understand, the legitimacy of this vote will be zero.
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said that since so many people have left the occupied regions, “there will be nothing close to a real poll of the population on their preferences”.
But Ukrainian officials still need to consider such votes 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 Ukrainian attacks as attacks on Russia,” Karasev said in an interview.
He said the Kremlin could also use the threat of referendums to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into accepting talks on Moscow’s terms, otherwise he would risk “losing the south” and much of his vital access to the sea.
Zelenskyy said that if Moscow goes ahead with the votes, there will be no discussion of any kind.
In the meantime, Ukrainian forces continue sporadic strikes against the Russian army in the Kherson region. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported killing 29 “occupiers” near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, as well as destroying artillery, armored vehicles and a military supply depot.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine