How the Kremlin is forcing Ukrainians to embrace Russian life

They distributed Russian passports, mobile phone numbers and decoders to watch Russian television. They replaced the Ukrainian currency with the ruble, redirected the Internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds of people who resisted assimilation.

To a greater or lesser extent, the occupying authorities of the territory seized by Moscow forces use fear and indoctrination to coerce Ukrainians into adopting a Russian way of life. “We are one people”, blue-white-and-red signposts say. “We are with Russia.”

Now comes the next act in President Vladimir V. Putin’s 21st century version of a war of conquest: the popular “referendum.”

Russian-appointed administrators in towns, villages and towns like Kherson in southern Ukraine are setting the stage for a vote as early as September that the Kremlin will present as a popular desire in the region to be part of the Russia. They recruit pro-Russian locals for new “election commissions” and promote to Ukrainian civilians the supposed benefits of joining their country; they would even have already printed the ballot papers.

Any referendum would be totally illegitimate, say Ukrainian and Western officials, but it would have worrying consequences. Analysts in Moscow and Ukraine expect this to serve as a prelude to Mr Putin officially declaring the conquered area to be Russian territory, protected by Russian nuclear weapons, making future attempts by Kyiv to drive out the potentially much more expensive Russian forces.

The annexation would also represent Europe’s largest territorial expansion by force since World War II, affecting an area several times larger than Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula which Mr Putin took power in 2014.

The prospect of further annexation has also affected the military calendar, putting pressure on Kyiv to attempt a risky counter-offensive earlier, rather than waiting for the arrival of longer-range Western weapons that would increase the chances of success.

“Organizing a referendum is not difficult at all,” said Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the Russian-imposed Crimean parliament, in a telephone interview this week. “They will say, ‘Take us under your tutelage, under your development, under your security.'”

Mr. Konstantinov, a longtime pro-Russian politician in Crimea, seated next to mr. Cheese fries in the Kremlin when the Russian president signed the document annexing the peninsula to Russia. He also helped organize the Crimean “referendum” in which 97% voted in favor of joining Russia – a result widely dismissed by the international community as a sham.

Now Mr Konstantinov said he was in constant contact with the Russian-imposed occupation authorities in the neighboring region of Kherson, which Russian troops captured at the start of the war. He said authorities told him a few days ago that they had started printing ballots, with the aim of arranging a vote in September.

Kherson is one of four regions in which officials announce planned referendums, with Zaporizhzhia in the south and Luhansk and Donetsk in the east. While the Kremlin says it will be up to the people of the region to “determine their own future”, Mr Putin last month hinted that he expected to annex the regions outright: he compared the war in ukraine with the wars of conquest of Peter the Great in the 18th century and said that, like the Tsar of Russia, “it was also our duty to return” the lost Russian territory.

At the same time, the Kremlin appears to be keeping its options open by offering few details. Aleksei Chesnakov, a Moscow political consultant who has advised the Kremlin on Ukraine policy, said Moscow sees referendums on joining Russia as its “baseline scenario” – although preparations for a possible vote will not are not yet finished. He declined to say if he himself was involved in the process.

“The referendum scenario appears to be realistic and the priority in the absence of signals from Kyiv on readiness for negotiations on a settlement,” Mr Chesnakov said in a written response to questions. “The legal and political void, of course, must be filled.”

As a result, a scramble to mobilize residents of Russian-occupied territories for a referendum is increasingly visible on the ground – presented as the initiative of local leaders.

Russian-appointed authorities in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, for example, announced this week that they were forming “election commissions” to prepare for referendums, which an official said could take place on September 1. 11 – a day when local and regional elections are to be held across Russia.

The announcement invited residents to apply to join the electoral commission by submitting a copy of their passport, school records and two passport photos.

Officials are accompanying preparations for a vote with an intensified propaganda campaign – preparing both the region’s residents as well as the domestic public in Russia for impending annexation. A new pro-Russian newspaper from the Zaporizhzhia region headlined its second issue last week with the headline: “Referendum will be! During Russian state television’s flagship weekly news program 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 an annexation playbook,” John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said this month, comparing preparations for the referendum the measures taken by the Kremlin in 2014 to try to justify its annexation of Crimea. “Annexation by force will be a flagrant violation of the Charter of the United Nations and we will not allow it to go unchallenged or unpunished.”

In Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, officials say any referendum on merging with Russia or forming a Russian client state in the occupied areas would be illegal, riddled with fraud and would do nothing to legitimize seizures of lands.

For Ukrainian civilians, the occupation has brought with it a myriad of hardships, including shortages of money and medicine – a situation the Russians are trying to exploit to win the locals’ allegiance by handing out “the humanitarian aid”.

Those seeking a sense of normality are encouraged to apply for a Russian passport, which is now required for things like motor vehicle registration or certain types of business; newborns and orphans are automatically registered as a Russian citizen.

“There is no money in Kherson, there is no work in Kherson,” said Andrei, 33, who worked in the after-sales service of a car dealership in the city before the war. . He left his home in the city with his wife and small child in early July and moved to western Ukraine.

“Kherson went back to the 1990s when only vodka, beer and cigarettes were for sale,” he said.

After taking control of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Russian forces sought out pro-Kremlin Ukrainian officials and installed them in government posts.

At the same time, they engaged in an ongoing campaign to stifle dissent that included the kidnapping, torture and execution of political and cultural leaders seen as a threat, according to witnesses interviewed by The New York Times, Western and Ukrainian officials and independent humanitarian groups. like Human Rights Watch.

The Russian occupiers cut off access to Ukrainian cellular service and limited the availability of YouTube and a popular messaging app, Viber. They introduced the ruble and began to change the school curriculum to that of Russia – which increasingly seeks to indoctrinate children with Mr. Putin’s worldview.

A top priority seems to have been getting locals to watch Russian TV: employees of the Russian state broadcaster in Crimea were deployed to Kherson to launch a news program called “Kherson and Zaporizhzhia 24”, and set-top boxes giving access to the Russian airwaves were distributed. free – or even delivered to residents unable to collect them in person.

In an interview late last month, Ihor Kolykhaiev, the mayor of the city of Kherson since 2020, said that Russian propaganda, coupled with feelings of being abandoned by the Kyiv government, was slowly succeeding in changing perceptions of some residents who stayed behind — mostly retirees and low-income people.

“I think something is changing in relationships, probably in people’s habits,” he said, estimating that 5-10% of his voters had changed their minds because of the propaganda.

“This is an irreversible process that will happen in the future,” he added. “And that’s what really worries me. It will then be almost impossible to restore it.

Mr Kolykhaiev spoke in a video interview from a makeshift office in Kherson. A few days later, his assistant announced that he had been abducted by pro-Russian occupying forces. Last Friday, I had no news.

Mr Putin referred to Kherson and other parts of southeastern Ukraine as Novorossiya, or New Russia – the name of the region after it was conquered by Catherine the Great in the 18th century and became part of the Russian Empire. In recent years, nostalgia in the region for the Soviet past and skepticism of the pro-Western government in Kyiv still persisted among older generationseven as the region was forging a new Ukrainian identity.

But as the occupation began this spring, residents of Kherson repeatedly gathered in large, noisy demonstrations to challenge Russian troops, even as they drew gunfire in response. This open confrontation is largely over, according to 30-year-old longtime Kherson resident Ivan, who remains in the city and has asked that his last name not be released due to the risks of speaking out publicly. .

“As soon as there is a large gathering of people, soldiers immediately appear,” he said by telephone. “It’s really deadly at this point.”

Signs of resistance are still evident, residents said.

“Our people go out at night and paint Ukrainian flags,” said another man, Andrei. “In yellow and blue letters they paint: ‘We believe in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.’ »

Andrew E. Kramer and Alina Lobzina contributed report.