Russia consolidates gains on territory seized from Ukraine

A woman runs from a burning house after a shelling in Donetsk, in the territory under the control of the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)

Russia seems increasingly unwilling to give up the territory it took in the war with Ukraine.

The ruble is now an official currency in the southern region of Kherson, alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.

Residents there and in Russian-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhia region are offered fast-track Russian passports.

The administrations installed by the Kremlin in the two regions have mentioned plans for integration with Russia.

Moscow-backed leaders of breakaway areas in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, which is mostly Russian-speaking, have expressed similar intentions.

(PA graphics)

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the separatists’ self-declared republics as independent two days before launching the invasion in February, and fierce fighting has been going on in the east for weeks as Russia seeks to ‘liberate’ all of Donbass .

The Kremlin largely kept silent about its plans for the cities, towns and villages it bombarded, surrounded and eventually captured. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it would be up to people living in the seized areas to decide their status.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week that enemy forces now control almost 20% of the country’s territory.

Before the war, Russia controlled 7%, including the Crimean peninsula and parts of Donbass.

But in a video message marking the first 100 days of the war, Mr Zelensky made it clear that Ukraine would not submit easily.

“We have already defended Ukraine for 100 days.

“Victory will be ours,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has said he believes “there is going to have to be a negotiated settlement” to end the war.

When asked if Ukraine should cede territory in exchange for peace, the president replied: ‘It’s their territory’ and ‘I’m not going to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. “.

At first, at least, the annexation of more Ukrainian lands was not seen as the main goal of the invasion.

It was widely believed that the Kremlin intended to install a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv that would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and further distance itself from Russian influence.

But now Moscow is unlikely to let go of its military gains, political analysts say.

“Of course (Russia) intends to stay,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For Russia, “it is a shame to give away what has been occupied, even if it was not part of the initial plan”.

Russian forces captured much of Kherson and neighboring Zaporizhzhia early in the war, taking control of most of Ukraine’s Sea of ​​Azov coast and securing a partial land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed to Ukraine in 2014.

They completed the takeover last month with the capture of the port city of Mariupol after a three-month siege.

Residents of the cities of Kherson and Melitopol took to the streets to protest against the occupation, clashing with Russian soldiers in squares.

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A Russian soldier guards an area in the Alley of Glory exploits the heroes – natives of the Kherson region, who participated in the liberation of the region from Nazi invaders in Kherson (Russian Defense Ministry/AP)

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia may hold a referendum in Kherson to declare the region an independent state.

Petro Kobernyk, 31, a non-governmental organization activist who fled Kherson with his wife, said Russian security forces were cracking down on pro-Ukrainian activists.

“Hundreds of pro-Ukrainian activists, including my friends, are being held in the basements of the security services,” Kobernyk said by phone.

“Those who actively speak out are being kidnapped and tortured, threatened and driven out of the area.”

Russian forces are keeping people in an “information vacuum” with Ukrainian websites no longer available, Kobernyk said.

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Ukrainian servicemen hold flowers during a funeral service for Army Colonel Oleksander Makhachek in Zhytomyr, Ukraine (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

His claims could not be independently verified.

But some in captured areas of Ukraine welcomed a Russian takeover.

“I wanted to live in Russia since I was little, and now I realize that I don’t even need to move,” said Vadim Romanova, a 17-year-old from Mariupol.

In Russian-occupied towns in southern Ukraine, people with pro-Kremlin views replaced mayors and other local leaders who disappeared in what Ukrainian officials and media described as kidnappings.

Russian flags were raised and Russian state broadcasts that promoted the Kremlin’s version of the invasion supplanted Ukrainian television channels.

The Russian ruble was introduced as the second official currency in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, at least in the Russian-controlled parts, and pro-Russian administrations began offering a “one-time social payment” of 10,000 rubles (about US$163). ) to local residents.

A Russian Migration Services office has opened in Melitopol, accepting applications for Russian citizenship from residents of captured southern regions through a fast-track procedure.

Russia Ukraine War
A woman walks down a street wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘All we need is peace’ in Kyiv, Ukraine (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

The procedure was first implemented in 2019 in rebel-held areas of Donbass, where more than 700,000 people received Russian passports.

Senior Russian officials have begun visiting the regions, touting the territories’ prospects for integration with Russia.

Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visited Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in mid-May and said they could be part of “our Russian family”.

A senior member of the ruling United Russia party in the Kremlin, Andrei Turchak, said it even more bluntly during a meeting with residents of Kherson: “Russia is here forever.”

Members of the pro-Kremlin administrations in both regions quickly announced that the regions would seek to be incorporated into Russia.

While it’s unclear when or if that will happen, Russia appears to be digging in.

Oleg Kryuchkov, an official in Russia’s annexed Crimea, said this week that the two southern regions had switched to Russian internet providers.

State media broadcast footage of people queuing to get Russian SIM cards for their cellphones.

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