Will Russia annex land taken from Ukraine?

Ukraine says the Kremlin would rig any referendum on joining Russia and refuse to negotiate after such a vote.

TALLINN, Estonia – According to Russian state TV, the future of the Ukrainian territories seized by Moscow’s forces is all but decided: referendums on belonging to Russia will soon be held there, and the cheerful residents abandoned by Kyiv will to be able to prosper in peace.

Indeed, the Kremlin appears in no hurry to seal the deal on Ukraine’s southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia, and eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, although officials there have already announced plans for a vote on joining Russia.

As the war in Ukraine nears its six-month mark, Moscow faces several problems in the territory it occupies – from shattered civilian infrastructure in dire need of rebuilding if colder weather looms, to guerrilla warfare Resistance and increasingly weakening attacks by Kiev forces prepares for a counter-offensive in the south.

Analysts say what could have been a clear victory for the Kremlin is turning into a mess.

“It is clear that the situation will not stabilize for a long time,” says Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program, even if referendums are eventually held. “There will be the guerrilla movement, there will be underground resistance, there will be terrorist attacks, there will be shelling. … At the moment one gets the impression that even the Kremlin doesn’t really believe that it would draw a big line under itself with these referendums.”

Moscow’s plans to incorporate conquered territories were clear from the start of the February 24 invasion. A few weeks later, separatist leaders of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which the Kremlin recognized as independent states, announced plans to hold votes on joining Russia. While Moscow-backed forces control almost all of Luhansk, some estimates that Russia and the separatists control about 60% of the Donetsk region.

Similar announcements followed from Kremlin-backed administrations in the southern Kherson region, almost entirely occupied by Russians, and in the Zaporizhia region, much of which is under Moscow control.

While the Kremlin coyly says it’s up to residents to decide whether they want to officially live in Russia or Ukraine, lower-level officials have been talking about possible dates for the vote.

Senior lawmaker Leonid Slutsky once mentioned July, although it did not happen. Vladimir Rogov, a Moscow-based official in the Zaporizhia region, suggested the first half of September. Kirill Stremousov, a Kremlin-backed official in Kherson, spoke of planning it before the end of the year.

As the summer draws to a close, there is still no date for the referendums. Pro-Russian officials in Kherson and Zaporizhia say the votes will come after Moscow takes full control of the rest of the Donetsk region, but the Kremlin’s gains there have been minimal recently. Still, campaigns to promote the voices are reportedly well underway.

Russian television shows cities with billboards proclaiming “Together with Russia”. From Kherson, Stremousov reports almost daily on social media about his travels through the region, where he meets people who are determined to join Russia. In the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhia, the administration installed in Moscow has already commissioned an election commission to prepare a referendum.

Aside from the vote, there are other signs Russia plans to remain.

The ruble was introduced alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia and used to pay out pensions and other benefits. Russian passports were offered to residents in an expedited citizenship process. Schools reportedly switched to a Russian curriculum as of September.

Russian license plates were given to car owners by the traffic police, with Kherson and Zaporizhia being assigned Russian region numbers 184 and 185. Russia’s Interior Ministry, which oversees traffic police, did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment to clarify how that was legal, as both regions are still part of Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials and activists, meanwhile, are painting a picture that contrasts sharply with the Russian television portrayal of a bright future for the occupied territories under Moscow’s generous care.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told AP that 90% of the population in the province’s major cities had left. Devastation and misery “reign” in the cities and towns captured by Russia, he said, and there are few villages not under Moscow’s control after weeks of exhausting fighting.

Residents use “water from puddles” and build “a campfire in the yard to cook food, right next to garbage,” Haidai said.

“Our people who manage to return home to collect their belongings do not recognize towns and villages that used to flourish,” he added.

According to pro-Ukrainian activist Konstantin Ryzhenko, the situation is not so bad in the southern city of Kherson, which lies north of the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Kherson was captured early in the war without much destruction, so most of its infrastructure is intact.

But supplies of essential goods have been patchy and prices for food and medicines imported from Russia have skyrocketed, Ryzhenko told the AP, adding that both are of “disgustingly low quality”.

At the beginning of the war, thousands of Kherson residents regularly protested against the occupation, but mass repression forced many to either flee the city or hide their views.

“Demonstrations have been impossible since May. If you publicly express anything pro-Ukrainian, any opinion on any issue, you are guaranteed to be imprisoned, tortured and beaten there,” Ryzhenko said.

The mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov, whose city in the Zaporizhia region was also occupied at the beginning of the war, echoed Ryzhenko’s sentiment.

Mass arrests and purges of activists and opinion-makers with pro-Kiev views began in May, said Fedorov, who spent time in Russian captivity for refusing to cooperate. More than 500 people remain in captivity in Melitopol, he told AP.

Despite this intimidation, he estimated that only about 10% of those who remain in the city would vote to join Russia if a referendum were held.

“The idea of ​​a referendum has discredited itself,” Fedorov said.

Kherson activist Ryzhenko believes a referendum would be rigged because “they are already talking about voting online, voting at home. … So you understand, the legitimacy of this vote will be nil.”

Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin said that because so many people have left the occupied territories, “there will be nothing that comes close to properly asking the population about their preferences.”

But Ukrainian authorities still have to treat such votes as a serious problem, said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kyiv-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies.

“After the referendums have taken place, Russia will consider the southern countries as part of its own territory and will consider Ukrainian attacks as attacks on Russia,” Karasev said in an interview.

He said the Kremlin could also use the threat of referendums to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to agree to negotiations on Moscow’s terms, or risk losing “the south” and much of its vital access to the sea.

Zelenskyi has said that if Moscow proceeds with voting, there will be no talks.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continue their sporadic attacks on the Russian military in the Kherson region. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Southern Operations Command reported that 29 “occupiers” were killed near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, and that artillery, armored vehicles and a military supply depot were destroyed.

https://www.kvue.com/article/news/nation-world/ukraine/ukraine-lands-held-by-russia/507-01310ee9-79bb-4a96-ab96-7efd0862f334 Will Russia annex land taken from Ukraine?

Laura Coffey

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