TALLINN, Estonia — According to Russian state TV, the future of the Ukrainian regions captured by Moscow’s forces is all but decided: Referendums on becoming part of Russia will soon take place there, and the joyful residents who were abandoned by Kyiv will be able to prosper in peace.
In reality, the Kremlin appears to be 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 already have 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 needs urgent rebuilding as colder weather looms, to guerrilla resistance and increasingly debilitating attacks by Kyiv’s military forces that have been gearing up for a counteroffensive in the south.
Analysts say that what could have been a clear victory for the Kremlin is becoming something of a muddle.
“It is clear that the situation won’t stabilize for a long time,” even if referendums eventually are held, says Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program. “There will be the guerrilla movement, there will be underground resistance, there will be terrorist acts, there will be shelling. … Right now, the impression is that even the Kremlin doesn’t really believe that by holding these referendums, it would draw a thick line under it.”
Moscow’s plans to incorporate captured territories were clear from the outset of the Feb. 24 invasion. Several weeks in, separatist leaders of the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which the Kremlin recognized as independent states, voiced plans to hold votes on becoming part of Russia. While forces backed by Moscow control almost all of Luhansk, some estimates say Russia and the separatists control about 60% of the Donetsk region.
Similar announcements followed from Kremlin-backed administrations of the southern Kherson region, which is almost completely occupied by Russians, and in the Zaporizhzhia region, large swaths of which are under Moscow’s control.
While the Kremlin coyly says it is up to the residents to decide whether they formally want to live in Russia or Ukraine, lower-level officials talked about possible dates for the balloting.
Senior lawmaker Leonid Slutksy once mentioned July, although it did not occur. Vladimir Rogov, a Moscow-installed official in the Zaporizhzhia region, suggested the first half of September. Kirill Stremousov, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, talked about scheduling it before the end of the year.
As summer wanes, 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. Still, campaigns promoting the votes are reportedly well underway.
Russian TV shows cities with billboards proclaiming, “Together with Russia.” Stremousov reports from Kherson almost daily on social media about his trips around the region, where he meets people adamant about joining Russia. In the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhia, the Moscow-installed administration already has ordered an election commission to prepare for a referendum.
Balloting aside, there are other signs that Russia is planning on staying.
The ruble has been introduced alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia and has been used to pay out pensions and other benefits. Russian passports were offered to residents in a fast-track citizenship procedure. Schools were reported to have switched to a Russian curriculum, starting in 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 the traffic police, did not responded to an Associated Press request for comment to clarify how that 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 TV portrayal of a bright future for the occupied territories under Moscow’s generous care.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai told AP that 90% of the population in the province’s large cities has left. Devastation and squalor “reigns” in the cities and towns seized by Russia, he said, and there are only a few villages not under Moscow’s control after weeks of exhausting battles.
Residents use “water from puddles” and build “a bonfire in the yard to cook food on, right next to garbage, Haidai said.
“Our people that manage to return home to collect their belongings don’t recognize towns and villages that used to blossom,” he added.
The situation isn’t as dire in the southern city of Kherson, which sits just north of the Crimean Peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, according to pro-Ukrainian 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 uneven, and prices for food and medicine brought in from Russia have spiked, Ryzhenko told AP, adding that both are of “disgustingly low quality.”
Early in the war, thousands of Kherson residents regularly protested the occupation, but mass repressions forced many either to flee the city or to hide their views.
“Demonstrations have been impossible since May. If you publicly express anything pro-Ukrainian, an opinion on whatever subject, you are guaranteed to be taken into detention, tortured and beaten there,” Ryzhenko said.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, whose city in the Zaporizhzhia region also was 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 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’re already talking about voting online, voting at home. … So, you understand, the legitimacy of this voting will be nil.”
Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said that because so many people have left the occupied regions, “there will be nothing close to a proper polling of the population about their preferences.”
But Ukrainian authorities still have to regard such votes as a serious issue, said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kyiv-based Institute of Global Strategies think tank.
“After the referendums take place, Russia will consider the southern lands as part of its own territory and view Ukrainian attacks as attacks on Russia,” Karasev said in an interview.
He said the Kremlin might also be using the threat of referendums to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to agree to negotiations on Moscow’s conditions or else risk “losing the south” and a large part of 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.
In the meantime, Ukrainian forces continue sporadic strikes against the Russian military in the Kherson region. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Operational Command South reported killing 29 “occupiers” near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, as well as destroying artillery, armored vehicles and a military supply depot.