Alexander Nepogodin: What does the future hold for the regions of Ukraine now controlled by Russia?
Restoring peacetime life to the territories under Russia’s control is vital as the what's known as the "special military operation" proceeds in Ukraine. Currently, these are the Kherson Region, most of the Zaporozhye province, and a large part of the area around Kharkov.
Moscow has begun restoring the economic and social infrastructure, as well as improving the living conditions in the area's concerned. Military-civil administrations have already been established, and the major cities often receive visits from high-ranking Russian officials. An opinion widely held in Russia is that these lands will remain with the country, and there is no turning back now.
RT examines the attempt to restore peace in the Zaporozhye and Kherson Regions, bearing in mind the strategic importance of the lands in southern Ukraine for Russia, and what the future holds for them.
The discussion of plans to make the Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions part of Russia pushes the limits of the military operation in Ukraine. The official approach remains the same though: Ukraine should be "denazified" and its military potential blunted, which requires securing control over certain territories. Judging by the political activity of Russian-appointed officials in these areas, the military operation will go well beyond the borders of the Donbass, depending on the situation on the frontline.
Andrey Klishas, the chair of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building, has sent an important signal, stating that not only Donbass residents, but all Ukrainian citizens, have the right to choose their destiny.
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy chair of the Kherson Region military-civil administration, has told Reuters that the fighting could affect the timing of Kherson’s formal plan to join Russia, and a decision is likely “towards next year.” He didn’t rule out the possibility of holding a referendum. In early May, however, he insisted there would be “no referendums,” accusing Ukraine of “spreading fakes” about Russian plans to vote on the establishment of a Kherson People’s Republic.
“Later, we will announce our plans for voting or referendums if any, but this is not going to happen any time soon since our primary goal is to restore order in Kherson Region,” Stremousov said. “It won’t happen by autumn,” he added, when asked about a timetable for possibly joining Russia.
Statements by Vladimir Rogov from the Zaporozhye Region military-civil administration follow the same lines. According to him, Zaporozhye will not return to Ukraine’s control. “There is no question we have to become part of Russia as its full-fledged constituent entity. We do not want any ‘grey areas’, any Zaporozhye People’s Republic. We want to be part of Russia. As we have always been for centuries.”
The territories under Moscow’s control have decided not to wait for the hostilities to end and have begun their integration into Russia’s economy. High-ranking state officials regularly pay visits, talking about restoring peacetime life and integrating the territory into the ‘mainland’. For the Donbass, it took many years, but now every month counts. The local authorities are planning to transition to Russian law, establish ruble-based financial and pension systems, and set up procedures for issuing documents by the end of the year. This would certainly help in restoring the region and restarting its economy.
Meanwhile, Russia has not reached a final decision on integration. If the decision is made, Moscow will face obstacles in implementing it, ranging from political to legal. Experts are discussing possible scenarios: The establishment of a people’s republic that would hold a referendum on acceding to Russia; merging with the Donetsk People’s Republic, which would later integrate into Russia; and also are searching for other legal grounds that would require changes to existing laws.
Naturally, a lot will depend on the situation on the battlefield and the Russia-Ukraine peace talks. The statements made by the military-civil administrations and Russian officials should signal to the residents of Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions that they will not return to Ukraine. Therefore, they need to start working with the pro-Russian authorities.
Many residents avoid working with the military-civil administrations – according to Ukrainian law, it is treason, and could lead to 15 years in prison. A witch hunt has already been launched in other parts of Ukraine. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) routinely breaks into the homes of Ukrainians who support the Russian offensive. People suspected of being pro-Moscow are detained and harshly interrogated. Pro-Russian Ukrainians are often labeled ‘collaborators’ and bullied on social media. The UN has recognized that the problem exists; the organization reported cases of kidnapping in Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye, and Kherson Regions.
However, the most important document that signals Russia’s long-term goals regarding these territories is the order of President Putin providing fast-track citizenship for residents of Zaporozhye and Kherson Regions. Distributing Russian passports to the people in these territories is an important statement that inspires confidence in locals that these regions will be part of Russia in the future.
People in Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions are slowly returning to normal life – not without difficulty, of course, but they are getting used to the new reality, and making plans for the future. In this short period of time, people have gained a sense of stability.
The authorities are establishing a new government. Local police are recruiting new officers, some of them former Ukrainian officials. The head of the Kherson police department is Vladimir Lipandin; in the early 2010s, he headed up the Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Cherkassy Region. In 2014, he dealt with Euromaidan rioters in Cherkassy, and ended up on the wanted list after the coup succeeded.
Former officials are getting involved at higher levels as well. Vladimir Saldo, the appointed head of the Kherson Region military-civil administration, has been elected mayor of Kherson three times in the past (2002-12), and is also a former MP from the Party of Regions, which held power in Kiev before the Western-backed Maidan.
The new authorities are prioritizing the resumption of normal life, forming structures of governance, building up aspects of the social and economic spheres, and creating jobs. They are working hard on this. A bi-currency (ruble and hryvna) zone was officially established there on May 23. The plan is to switch to the ruble as the only currency in the near future.
Residents of the Kherson Region already receive salaries, pensions, and other payments in rubles, while Russian internet providers, TV channels, and radio stations are also available. Russian banks are expected to arrive soon. At present, the only institution operating in the region is the International Settlements Bank, registered in partly-recognized South Ossetia. Zaporozhye and Kherson have also begun using the Russian telephone prefix (+7), and a new cellphone service provider has started working.
“There is a problem with paying for cell services. People can’t call their relatives. The Ukrainian economy basically no longer exists there. Payment terminals are not working, the Ukrainian authorities disconnected these regions from all communications, no pensions will be paid. They did the same thing with the Donbass back in the day. That was their punishment. The same is happening here. They disconnected all ATMs and terminals. That’s why people are buying new SIM cards that require identification,” State Duma MP Oleg Matveichev explains.
However, although Ukraine has unilaterally severed ties with the region, leading to short-term shortages and price increases, Russian operators are now filling the space – and not only mobile carriers and banks, but also stores, pharmacy chains, and other distributors of consumer goods. High prices remain the biggest problem. But switching to the ruble should help bring them down to at least the same level as in Crimea and help the region’s economic recovery in general. For the time being, a lot depends on volunteers with grassroots fundraisers.
Another problem that keeps coming up in the region is the lack of normally functioning checkpoints between the Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions and Crimea. Hundreds of trucks are lined up at the border, preventing the transportation and sale of huge amounts of agricultural products to Russia. Calls have been made for this problem to be solved as quickly as possible so goods can flow unobstructed. Among other things, work has begun to restore the railway connection between Crimea and Russia through the two regions.
While it seems premature to estimate the costs involved in rebuilding the territories now under Russian control, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who has visited the Kherson Region, has already announced the creation of a special task force to rebuild it. “We will rebuild all the roads and housing that have been destroyed. Another package of measures will aim to restore the economy. We have prepared a number of initiatives to get the economy and the financial system up and running as quickly as possible,” he said.
The Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions are strategically important to Russia for many reasons. First, they are part of the land corridor between Crimea and Rostov. Second, the area encompassing the Donbass and southern Ukraine, which was historically called Novorossiya, is, unlike Crimea, an industrial and agricultural powerhouse. In other words, these territories will not be a burden for Russia. In the long run, if Moscow integrates them regions, they will become important contributors to the country’s economy, generating income and development opportunities.
While visiting the region, Khusnullin noted that there has not been much destruction and that the Russian authorities plan to re-launch factories and restore roads as quickly as possible, as well as developing agricultural production. “The Kherson region has great prospects, it will take a worthy place in the Russian family,” he said.
Indeed, regions now occupied by the Russian Armed Forces previously produced one-third of Ukraine’s wheat. In addition to its own consumption, Ukraine covered 10% of world exports. Together with the shares of Russia and Kazakhstan, it made up one-third of the global total. In the context of an impending global food crisis, the significance of southeastern Ukraine is hard to overestimate.
However, grain is not the most important agricultural output of southeastern Ukraine. The Kherson Region grew most of Ukraine’s vegetables and melons, while Zaporozhye is a land of cherry horticulture. In terms of numbers, Kherson produced more vegetables than any other part of the country – 14% of the total harvest in Ukraine. Its greatest contribution was tomato, cucumber, and onion production. Every third tomato grown in the country came from Kherson, and the share of local cucumbers and onions in the total mix of Ukrainian produce was 12% each.
Admittedly, there are difficulties. Vegetable farms require fertilizers, seeds, and fuel, as well as people, at a time when many specialists are leaving the region. However, if the statements by the Kherson Region military-civil administration are to be believed, 95% of the region’s arable land has been cultivated and seeded, and the coming season promises a very high yield. Naturally, local farmers will want to expand their presence on major markets, including by supplying to the central regions of Russia.
Losing Kherson and Zaporozhye would deal a huge blow to Ukraine’s economy. Many analytical agencies forecast a serious economic meltdown for the country that no amount of financial aid could contain. Morgan Stanley Global Financial Services expects the country’s GDP to drop at least 39% in 2022. If Ukraine loses access to the Black Sea, GDP is predicted to shrink by as much as 60%. If the country only loses Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye, GDP would still plunge 22%.
It does look like Ukraine stands to lose not only arable lands and industrial assets, but also some of its critical infrastructure facilities, such as Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporozhye. The Zaporozhye NPP generates about 40 GWh annually, which accounts for half of the total energy produced by Ukraine’s entire NPP network, and 20% of the country’s total annual energy production.
Which is exactly why the Zaporozhye NPP could be considered by Russia a key to recovery in areas with access to the Azov Sea, especially since, now that Mariupol has been secured by the Russian Army and the DPR militia, the sea is under Russia’s full control. The port recovery project is fully underway now. Mariupol has already received its first ship, while the port in Skadovsk is undergoing reconstruction and is expected to be able to start shipping grain in just a few months.
The strategic importance of Kherson is also seen in the fact that it is a major supplier of fresh water to Crimea via the North Crimean Canal. Although the peninsula has been able to improve its own water supply in recent years, gaining access to the canal is a major factor in its development. The head of the Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, reported recently that the water supply via the North Crimean Canal has been restored, and he considers it to be a permanent solution.
However, one of the most important reasons for Moscow to claim these territories is the large Russian-speaking population with pro-Russia views, which did not support the Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Russia sees its mission as integrating this population into its multinational state, where they would be free from any restrictions of the kind Ukraine has imposed on their language and culture. In recent statements, Stremousov said Russian will become an official language of the region, like Ukrainian.
“Russian will be the language of everyday communication, state affairs and official documents. There will be no restrictions on the Ukrainian language whatsoever,” he said, emphasizing that no one’s language freedoms will be taken away. The administration is planning to start a dialogue with the local community of Crimean Tatars to discuss the possibility of making the Crimean Tatar language the third official language in the region.
It seems at the moment that the areas that are critical in supporting Crimea fall outside the scope of Russia’s agenda for talks with Ukraine. The progress of the military offensive will determine how the situation unfolds, but it seems that the chances for a peace settlement are dwindling, since Ukraine’s position on Kherson and Zaporozhye is unwavering, and Kiev says it's only interested in resuming peace talks based on the status quo that existed prior to February 24.
This means that the destiny of the Russian-controlled territories in the southeast will be defined by the goals of the military operation. Right now, it seems as though their integration with Russia is inevitable. Both the Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions play a key role in ensuring Crimea’s safety and maintaining Russia’s connection to Donbass. Currently, however, recovery in these territories takes precedence over political issues, including potential integration with Russia.