Undisguised occupation: Russian authority in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia
July 5, 2022
  • Tetyana Malyarenko
    Professor of International Relations at National University Odesa Law Academy
  • Stefan Wolff
    Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham
Tetyana Malyarenko and Stefan Wolff analyze the Russian “civil-military” administration in the occupied Ukrainian territories in the economic, cultural and socio-political spheres.
Mykolaiv Regional State Administration after a rocket strike, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
For several weeks, Ukrainian forces have been counterattacking to reclaim Russian-occupied territories in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south of the country.

The fact that the Ukrainian forces had to abandon those territories in the first place was the result of a miscalculation. They had been taken by Russian forces in the early days of the invasion. According to Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, as he noted in a Liga.netarticle on June 18, Ukraine had expected the main Russian attack to come from the territory of the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR and consequently concentrated its most combat-ready units there.

This blunder left the south relatively unprotected for an invasion from Crimea, which enabled the rapid Russian advance toward Mariupol and the occupation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. It also created the threat of Mykolaiv and Odesa being occupied, while for some time part of the Russian strategy seemed to be to take the entire Black Sea coast of Ukraine, in effect creating a land bridge from Russia all the way to Transnistria in Moldova.

Though that has not been achieved and is unlikely to be achievable in light of the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, what Russia did achieve after the fall of Mariupol is a land corridor to Crimea, which was among Moscow’s key strategic objectives from the beginning. 

Occupation forces instead of local proxies

From a military point of view, the Russian occupation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions has been a success so far. However, this is not the whole picture. The vast majority of the population in these areas consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians (“Ukrainians by nationality”) – 87% according to an opinion poll conducted in late April 2022, with only 5.5% identifying themselves as ethnic Russians. Moreover, only 8% of respondents supported the idea of unification with Russia in a poll conducted before the war started. 

Thus, the context in which Russia's occupation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia unfolds today is very different from that of Donetsk and Luhansk after 2014.
“First, Russia is openly using its own forces to occupy these territories, rather than proxy forces supported by 'little green men'".
Second, the international response to Russia’s invasion has been much more decisive: apart from widespread condemnation in international fora from the UN General Assembly to the Council of Europe and the OSCE, the West is supporting Ukraine militarily with some of the most advanced weaponry currently available and has imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia.

These differences account for the fact that after 2014, the Kremlin was able to pursue a gradual approach to entrench and legitimize its proxy occupation of the DNR and LNR, establishing them over a period of more than a year as de facto states with their own political, security, economic and social institutions.

In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, due to the presence of large numbers of Russian troops, combined with the military and economic pressures Moscow faces, this timeline is much more compressed and lacks even the thin veneer of legitimacy that Russia tried to create in Donbas after 2014.

Importantly, the different approach also reflects a fundamentally different objective now pursued by Moscow: instead of using de facto states as levers of influence over domestic and foreign policy choices, Russia is now aiming to maximize its security by establishing full direct or proxy control over geostrategically valuable territories.

At the same time, however, the methods used by Russia have generally remained the same as those used in 2014, which in turn were modelled on “state-building” efforts by Russian proxies decades earlier in Transnistria, some veterans of which were drafted for Donbas by Russia in the summer of 2014.

Similar to the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk eight years earlier, the departure of local Ukrainian elites from Kherson, Mariupol, Berdyansk and Melitopol in the course of the Russian invasion has facilitated the transfer of power to local pro-Russian elites willing to cooperate with the Russian occupation forces. This sets the scene for the implementation of various tactics to establish and consolidate full control over the occupied territories.

In the first stage, any local Ukrainian resistance is crushed by brutal force, including civilian massacres. This begins prior to the actual occupation with the systematic and indiscriminate shelling of populated areas and is meant to instill fear in the local population and either force them to flee the area prior to the arrival of Russian forces or to submit to the occupation regime afterward.

This tactic was tried on the outskirts of Kyiv and in Kharkiv – as is evident from the atrocities in places like Bucha and Irpin – but failed in both cases. Simultaneously, humanitarian aid from Ukraine and international organizations for the occupied areas of Kherson Region has been blocked by Russian soldiers since early March, which has forced the local population into a growing dependency on Russian handouts of food and medicine.
“This constitutes an additional lever used to force the local population to comply with the occupation regime."
The use of terror during the first stage of the Russian occupation is followed by attempts to impose the Russian “system.” The success of this, second stage is predicated on the extent to which the terror managed to expel or subdue pro-Ukrainian elites and activists and is a precursor to subsequent integration into Russia. 

This stage of consolidating territorial control is what is happening now in the newly occupied territories of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Russian efforts are underway in three spheres: economic, cultural and socio-political. The results are varied, but the Russian tactics clearly indicate the ultimate goal is integration into Russia.
Russian military forces in Kherson Oblast, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Interference with culture, education and communications

The Russian “system” has made the most progress in the economic sphere. The occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have been forced to adopt the Russian ruble as legal tender and have been incorporated into the Russian tax and banking system. At the same time, as links to Ukraine have been cut off, the entire trade, logistics and transport infrastructure of the occupied territories are being reoriented towards Russia.

In contrast to the economic integration of the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR, the Kremlin isn’t relying on proxy agents, such as banks and companies registered in Abkhazia, but rather on Russian entities, such as Promsvyazbank, which launched operations in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in June. 

Russia has redirected all internet traffic in the occupied territories through its own servers. One Russian mobile operator, Mirtelecom, is already operating in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia region, and two more will launch operations before the end of summer.
“Switching local providers to Russian servers limits residents’ access to Ukrainian news sites and social networks."
For now, VPNs are solving this problem. In the future, however, internet traffic in the occupied territories is likely to be even more tightly controlled to limit the transmission of information to and from Ukrainian media and the Ukrainian government. 

In relation to political institutions, the newly occupied territories are administered by so-called “civil-military administrations” set up by the Russian occupation forces. The authority of these administrations remains legally undefined and therefore does not create even a pretense of any kind of rule of law. The installation of local pro-Russian collaborators in these administrations gives governance only a thin veneer of local participation and paves the way for future formal integration into Russia. 

In the cultural sphere, the so-called civil-military administrations are introducing Russian education standards, forcing schoolchildren and teachers to enroll in Russian language courses, imposing Russian as the sole language of instruction in schools and using imported Russian textbooks while destroying Ukrainian books in schools and libraries. There have been instances when post-independence Ukrainian sculptures and monuments were replaced with Soviet-era ones. Broadcasting is limited to Russian TV and radio channels.
“Despite the ferocity of these Russian efforts, their success is far from assured."
Ukrainian resistance in the occupied territories persists and the Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in May so far shows no signs of stalling. As a response, Russia will likely double down on the brutality of its occupation.

At the same time, Russia does not appear entirely sure of its long-term capacity to hold onto the newly conquered territories. This is evident from widely reported theft of grain from storage facilities in the occupied territories, the looting of private homes and enterprises, and the stripping of public assets, such as trolleybuses and medical equipment, and their illegal transfer to Russia and the self-proclaimed people’s republics. An occupying power confident that it will permanently integrate and develop these territories would hardly engage in such activities.

None of this bodes well for the civilian population left behind, who have already lived through almost four months of war and whose suffering at the hands of their Russian “liberators” is bound to continue and intensify for some time yet.
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