They gave out Russian passports, cell phone numbers and set-top boxes to watch Russian television. They replaced Ukraine’s currency with rubles, rerouted the internet through Russian servers, and arrested hundreds of people against assimilation.
In many ways large and small, the occupying authorities in the territory captured by Moscow’s forces are using fear and sophistry to force the Ukrainian people to adopt the Russian way of life. “We are one person,” blue-white-red billboards Speak. “We are with Russia.”
Now comes the next move in President Vladimir Putin’s 21st-century version of a war of conquest: the “referendum”.
Russian-appointed administrators in towns, villages and cities like Kherson in southern Ukraine are preparing for a vote in early September that the Kremlin will present as a popular wish in the region region is to become part of Russia. They are recruiting pro-Russian locals for new “electoral commissions” and promoting to ordinary Ukrainians the supposed benefits of joining their country; They are even said to have printed the ballot papers.
Ukrainian and Western officials say any referendum would be completely illegal, but it would have ominous consequences. Analysts in both Moscow and Ukraine expect this to be a prelude to Mr. Putin’s official declaration of the occupied area as Russian territory, protected by Russian nuclear weapons – prompting the Kyiv’s future efforts to drive out Russian forces are likely to be much more costly.
The annexation would also represent Europe’s largest forcible territorial expansion since World War Two, affecting an area many times larger than Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula. Putin took over in 2014.
The prospect of another annexation also affects the military’s timetable, pressuring Kyiv to launch a risky counterattack sooner, rather than wait for more long-range Western weapons to increase. chances of success.
Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Russian-imposed Crimean Parliament, said in a phone interview this week: “It is not difficult to carry out a referendum. “They will ask: ‘Take us under your tutelage, under your development, under your security.'”
Mr. Konstantinov, a longtime pro-Russian politician in Crimea, sitting next to Putin in the Kremlin when the Russian President signed the document annexing the peninsula to Russia. He also helped organize the “referendum” in Crimea, in which 97 percent voted in favor of joining Russia – an outcome widely rejected by the international community as a sham.
Our Report on the Russo-Ukrainian War
Now, Konstantinov said, he is in regular contact with the Russian-imposed occupation authorities in the neighboring Kherson region, which Russian troops captured earlier in the war. He said authorities had told him a few days ago that they had begun printing ballots, with the aim of holding a vote in September.
Kherson is one of four regions where officials are signaling referendums are planned, along with Zaporizhzhia to the south and Luhansk and Donetsk to the east. While the Kremlin claims that the people of the region will “determine their own future,” Putin last month hinted that he expected to completely annex the regions: he compared the war in Ukraine with the conquests of Peter the Great in the 18th century and said that, like the Russian tsar, “we too must return” Russia’s lost territory.
At the same time, the Kremlin appears to have left its options open by offering some specifics. Aleksei Chesnakov, a political consultant in Moscow who has advised the Kremlin on Ukraine policy, said Moscow considers referendums on Russia’s accession to be the “basic scenario” – although the Preparations for a potential vote are not yet complete. He declined to say whether he himself was involved in the process.
“The referendum scenario seems realistic and preferable in the absence of a signal from Kyiv of readiness for negotiations on a settlement,” Chesnakov said in a written response to reporters. question. “Legal and political gaps, of course, need to be filled.”
As a result, a scramble to mobilize residents of Russian-occupied territories for an increasingly visible referendum – seen as the initiative of local leaders .
For example, the Russian-designated authorities in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions announced this week that they were forming an “electoral commission” to prepare for the referendums, an official said. May take place on September 11th – a day when local and regional elections take place. scheduled to be held all over Russia.
The notification residents are invited to apply for election committee membership by submitting a copy of their passport, educational records, and two ID-sized photos.
Officials are helping to prepare for a vote with an intense propaganda campaign – encouraging both residents of the region as well as a domestic audience in Russia about a lurking annexation. A new pro-Russian newspaper in the Zaporizhzhia region headlined its second issue last week with the headline: “The referendum will take place!” On the weekly news program on Russian state television last Sunday, a report promised that “everything is being done to ensure that Kherson returns to its historic homeland as soon as possible.” .”
“Russia is starting to roll out a version of what you might call a takeover play,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, this month. annexation of Crimea. “A takeover by force would be a complete violation of the Charter of the United Nations and we will not allow it to happen unreservedly or with impunity.”
In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, officials said any referendum on merging with Russia or creating a client state of Russia in the occupied regions would be illegal, full of fraudulent farming and did nothing to legitimize the occupation of the land.
For ordinary Ukrainians, the occupation came with numerous hardships, including shortages of cash and medicine – a situation the Russians tried to exploit to win loyalty from the locals. by distributing “humanitarian aid”.
Sensation-seekers are being encouraged to apply for a Russian passport, which is now required for things like motor vehicle registration or certain types of businesses; infants and orphans are automatically register as a Russian citizen.
“No money in Kherson, no job in Kherson,” said Andrei, 33, who worked in the service department of a car dealership in the city before the war. He left home in the city with his wife and young children in early July and moved to western Ukraine.
“Kherson went back to the 1990s when it was just vodka, beer and cigarettes,” he said.
After gaining control in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Russian forces sought out pro-Kremlin Ukrainian officials and installed them in government positions.
At the same time, they engaged in a continuing campaign to crack down on dissent, including the kidnapping, torture, and execution of political and cultural leaders who were seen as a threat. witnesses interviewed by The New York Times, Western and Ukrainian officials, and independent humanitarian groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Russian occupiers have cut off access to Ukraine’s mobile service, while also restricting the availability of YouTube and a popular messaging app, Viber. They introduced the ruble and began to change the school curriculum to the Russian one – this increasingly seek to teach their children to follow Putin’s worldview.
The top priority seems to be attracting locals to watch Russian television: Russian state broadcasters in Crimea have been dispatched to Kherson to start a news program called “Kherson and Zaporizhzhia” 24″ and set-top boxes that allow access to Russia’s airwaves were distributed free of charge – or even delivered to residents who were unable to pick them up in person.
In an interview late last month, Ihor Kolykhaiev, mayor of Kherson since 2020, said Russian propaganda, coupled with feelings of abandonment by the government in Kyiv, are gradually succeeding in changing the situation. perception of some residents. stay – mainly pensioners and low-income earners.
“I think something is changing in relationships, maybe in people’s habits,” he says, estimating that 5 to 10 percent of his members have changed their mind because of the announcement. transmission.
“This is an irreversible process that will happen in the future,” he added. “And that’s what I’m really worried about. Then it will be almost impossible to restore it.”
Kolykhaiev spoke in a video interview from a makeshift office in Kherson. Days later, his aide announced that he had been kidnapped by pro-Russian occupation forces. As of Friday, he still hasn’t heard from him.
Mr. Putin has called Kherson and other regions in the southeastern part of Ukraine Novorossiya, or New Russia – the name of the region after it was conquered in the 18th century by Catherine the Great and became part of the Russian Empire. . In recent years, in the region nostalgia for the Soviet past and skepticism of the pro-Western government in Kyiv still exists among the older generationseven as the region is creating a new Ukrainian identity.
At the start of the occupation year this spring, Kherson residents repeatedly gathered in large, boisterous demonstrations to challenge the Russian military even as they opened fire in return. This public confrontation is largely over, according to a 30-year-old Kherson resident who lives in Kherson, who remains in the city and asked to withhold his surname because of the risks of speaking out publicly.
“As soon as there is a large crowd, soldiers will appear immediately,” he said by phone. “It’s really life-threatening at this point.”
But the signs of resistance were clear, residents said.
Andrei, another man, said: “Our people go out at night and draw Ukrainian flags. “They painted the letters in yellow and blue, ‘We believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.'”
Andrew E. Kramer and Alina Lobzina contribution report.