Russia’s annexation of the occupied territories in October 2022 indicates that it has no intention of voluntarily returning them to Ukraine in the future and is ready for a prolonged confrontation with Ukraine and the West.
The fake referendums on joining Russia were passed off as the will of the people remaining in the occupied territories, although the results were known well in advance.
The Russian-occupied areas are undergoing severe regression – they are being Russified and stripped of local resources. The new authorities take no interest in local life and people.
In the spring of 2022, Russia captured a large part of the Kherson Oblast and more than half of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. With this, Russia secured a land connection with Crimea and moved closer to the goal of gaining control over the entire northern shore of the Black Sea. The quickly appointed occupation authorities, either local or sent in from Russia, began to establish what is known as the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) in the conquered territories, destroying everything representing Ukraine. Preparations started for holding referendums on joining Russia, but this was not considered urgent in the first half of September.
However, the Ukrainians’ successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in mid-September changed the calculus for the Russians. They realised the need to quickly incorporate the territories in southern Ukraine to avoid similar failures repeating. After fake referendums staged in late September, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were incorporated into Russia. Russia did not clearly define the borders of the annexed regions, probably in a deliberate move to retain some leeway for deciding when to declare that Russian territory has been attacked.
The Russian special services, especially the FSB, play an essential role in establishing and maintaining occupation regimes.
The Russian special services, especially the FSB, play an essential role in establishing and maintaining occupation regimes. FSB officers placed in leadership positions in the “military-civilian administrations” organise the occupied territories’ integration into Russia according to Moscow’s instructions. They curate local collaborators and have a significant say in personnel decisions. In the long term, the plan is to transfer power to civilian authorities loyal to Moscow, but the problem is the scarcity of suitable and reliable collaborators and the Kremlin’s distrust of them. Therefore, many positions are filled with Russians or locals who are completely unknown to the residents.
A “referendum” carried out the Russian way on 25 September 2022. Source: Stringer / EPA
Operative groups of Russian special services officers are also deployed in the occupied territories, among other things, to hunt down Ukrainian patriots and agents and gather intelligence. The same methods were used in the Ukrainian territories that came under Russian control after 2014 when the Donbas authorities and security agencies were managed through curators and special services operative groups appointed by Moscow.
The Russians are experiencing difficulties finding officials willing to work in occupied territories amidst or near hostilities. Personal safety is likely the primary concern. Specialists for reconstruction work are hard to come by, and companies that have started working in the area fear sanctions. Higher wages than usual are offered to attract people to the occupied areas.
Russia’s ability to assert itself in the occupied territories has proven to be as deficient as its overall capability to threaten Ukraine.
The situation of the local leadership and residents is a secondary concern for Russia. The occupation authorities complain that applying for Russian passports is difficult, banks do not work, there is a lack of teachers, and only “Ukrainian propaganda” is broadcast on television. There is also a shortage of medicines and fears about coping in the winter.
The Kremlin has long planned the illegal annexation of the territories conquered from Ukraine. The Ukrainians’ fierce resistance has stopped Russia from occupying all the desired territory. Moreover, the occupiers did not find the expected support among the local population. On the contrary, the Ukrainians living in the occupied territories have defiantly continued to resist or are looking for ways to leave. Not much effort was made to simulate the legality of the fake referendums organised in haste to legitimise the Russian occupation authorities. Russia’s ability to assert itself in the occupied territories has proven to be as deficient as its overall capability to threaten Ukraine.