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The Quiet Transformation of Occupied Ukraine

By David Lewis Away From the Frontlines, Russia Cements Its Conquest While the West continues to squabble over providing further aid to Ukraine, Russia has been quietly consolidating its control over the territories it occupies in southeastern Ukraine. As the frontline stabilized in 2023, Russia remained in control of almost 18 percent of Ukrainian territory, including about 25,000 square miles of land seized since February 2022. All branches of the Russian government are involved in a costly and ambitious program to integrate these newly occupied territories into the Russian Federation—as Russia did with Crimea after it seized the peninsula in 2014. The Kremlin hopes to create facts on the ground that will be difficult for Ukraine to challenge, either by military force or in future peace talks. Russia ceremonially annexed four Ukrainian oblasts—Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of the country and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south—in September 2022, although its military is not in full control of any of these provinces. Since then, Russian officials have transformed the governance of the areas under its control, holding sham elections last September and appointing pro-Moscow officials at every level. An army of technocrats is overseeing the complete absorption of these territories, aligning their laws, regulations, and tax and banking systems with Russia, and getting rid of any traces of institutional ties to Ukraine. A nominal transition period runs until January 2026, by which time the Kremlin expects Russian legal, judicial, and political systems to be fully in force in what it calls the “New Regions.” This administrative occupation is less well known than the violence and human rights abuses that accompany it. But Russia’s war in Ukraine extends well beyond its ruthless missile and drone strikes, its legions of soldiers, and its bellicose rhetoric. In occupied Ukraine, bureaucrats have been effective at enforcing the compliance of locals. Even as some people resist, authorities impose Russian education, cultural indoctrination, and economic and legal systems to rope these lands ever more tightly to Russia. The longer Russia occupies these territories, the harder it will be for Ukraine to get them back. UNDER THE RUSSIAN YOKE Probably more than half the prewar population of newly occupied regions fled after Russia invaded in 2022. But for those people who remained, the Russian system has forced almost everybody into some level of cooperation. According to Russian figures, almost 90 percent of the remaining residents in the four annexed oblasts—around three million people—have now been issued Russian passports. They have little choice: you need a Russian passport to open a bank account, run a business, or receive welfare payments. Assessing the attitudes and loyalties of those living under Russian occupation is extremely difficult. There are no independent media or civil society groups, and the security services carefully monitor social media. But society in the newly occupied areas is clearly divided. A minority of people have served in the occupation regime or publicly adopted pro-Russian positions, often in line with their prewar sentiments. But Russian visitors to newly occupied regions report quiet hostility from locals. The Ukrainian military has maintained an armed resistance behind the frontlines in all four oblasts, with reports every few weeks of car bombs targeting Russian officers or local collaborators. Nevertheless, the Russians’ brutal but effective filtration mechanisms—procedures that screen every individual’s background, record of military service, and political views—have suppressed popular resistance. Most people simply try to get by without ending up “in the basement,” as locals term the grim brutality of Russian detention. Russia is happy to see potential opponents leave: there is still an exit route available to those with the money to buy a ticket on regular charter buses from the occupied territories to Europe via Russia. Those who remain must endure endless pro-Russian messaging and indoctrination. Whenever Russian forces reached a new town in Ukraine, they swiftly seized the television tower. They took Ukrainian broadcasts off air and switched to the Kremlin’s propaganda. The Russian journalist Alexander Malkevich—sanctioned by the United States for his attempts to interfere in U.S. politics in 2018—turned up in June 2022 in Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to set up new local television stations and a school for young journalists. His local radio station in the occupied areas broadcasts patriotic music shows to Russian troops. Few locals can stomach this blatant Russian propaganda, so they look for alternatives. Most people scroll through endless Telegram channels in search of news. This messaging app is used by everybody in the occupied territories, including pro-Russian officials and members of the Ukrainian resistance. It is a key battleground in the propaganda wars but also a survival mechanism for people stuck under Russian rule. On local channels on Telegram, users can get warnings of impending missile attacks, find out when the banks are open, discuss how to get a better Internet connection, or discover the best place to get a manicure. Russia now runs all the telecommunications and Internet networks in the annexed oblasts, so many Ukrainian news sites are blocked. People do use virtual private networks to get around Russian barriers and access Ukrainian sources, but as time passes, some locals say they no longer bother. Some complain that Ukrainian news is out of touch with the realities of life under occupation. At schools in the Russian occupied areas, children cannot avoid the propaganda. They are forced to sing the Russian national anthem every week. Schools have completely switched over to using Russian curriculum, with Ukrainian reduced to an optional second language. Senior pupils are taught from a new Russian history textbook that tells them that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis and that Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine was a justified response to Western aggression. Some parents manage to keep their children studying in online Ukrainian schools, but that is risky—according to a report by Amnesty International, parents are afraid that their children will be taken away if they are discovered to be enrolled in remote Ukrainian schools. Some teachers refused to use the new Russian curriculum in the face of detention and threats. But many continue to work under the new regime—thousands of Ukrainian teachers are reported to have undergone compulsory retraining courses in Crimea and in Russia. Their motivations vary. A few may be irredentists who want to be part of a greater Russian polity. Others perhaps had always disliked the shift to Ukrainian-language education that occurred in recent years and welcomed the switch back to Russian-language schooling. Some teachers probably believed they could mitigate the worst aspects of Russian education, working within the system to protect their students. Others saw the Russian occupation as an opportunity for better salaries and promotion. Many people have remained in these areas because they had elderly relatives who would not move or because they could not face living in exile. Under occupation, everyday decisions can be life changing. Choosing to work in a Russian-controlled school—or any other local organization—leaves residents open to eventual prosecution for collaboration. Ukrainian authorities have already launched at least 6,000 cases against supposed collaborators since a new law was introduced in March 2022. Possible penalties range from bans on future government employment to significant prison terms and the confiscation of property. The law is controversial: it defines collaboration so broadly that many business owners or local government employees run the risk of prosecution once Ukraine retakes their towns and communities. More senior figures have often escaped as Ukrainian forces advanced, so it has been mostly low-level administrators or teachers who have ended up in court. Many of these are women, who often occupy such posts in local government and education. Although most Ukrainians agree that anybody who takes up a leading position in Russia’s occupation administration deserves the full force of the law, lawyers and human rights activists are concerned that the law is too broad and plays into Russia’s hands. When Russian forces withdrew from Kherson in November 2022, thousands of Ukrainians—including many teachers—also left with them, encouraged by Russian propaganda warning that they would be prosecuted as collaborators. Russia is betting that in the long term, Ukrainian children in these areas will become socialized as patriotic Russians. Ukrainian schoolchildren have been taken on lavish study tours of Russia, visiting tourist sites and university summer schools. Russian television programs regularly show children from the Donbas or southern Ukraine being welcomed at festivals inside Russia. This is unpleasant propaganda, but these visits at least appear to be mostly voluntary. There are also much grimmer cases in which thousands of children from Ukraine were illegally deported to Crimea or Russia during the fighting. Some were illegally adopted by Russian families. Many Ukrainian families are struggling to locate their children and get them back. THE MANY TENTACLES OF OCCUPATION In conquered Ukrainian towns such as Melitopol or Mariupol, Russia is slowly obliterating every visual reminder of Ukraine. In the first weeks of the war, Russian troops pulled down Ukrainian tridents and destroyed monuments that commemorated the Soviet-induced famine—known as the Holodomor—that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. They have painted over Ukrainian colors—blue and yellow—everywhere with Russia’s red and blue. Russia aims to reverse completely the Ukrainianization and “decommunization” campaigns that swept through the region after 2014. A May 2015 law ordered the removal of all Soviet and communist symbols and statues and replaced tens of thousands of Soviet-era names of towns and streets. During the campaign, the Ukrainian authorities knocked down over 1,000 statues of Lenin across the country. Now, the Russians are putting them back up. Streets have been obsessively renamed. In Mariupol, Freedom Square has once again become Lenin Square. Meotida Boulevard, a devastated street in the heart of the city’s Greek community, has returned to its previous awkward Soviet-era name, 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution Street. University Street in Melitopol was changed to Darya Dugina Street, named for the far-right Russian activist and pundit who was killed by a car bomb in Moscow in August 2022. Street names also reflect the legacy of twentieth-century ideological battles. In Melitopol, Dmytro Dontsov Street, named for a Ukrainian political thinker of the 1930s with fascist views, now bears the name of Pavel Sudoplatov, an infamous Stalinist secret agent who helped murder Leo Trotsky. The war spills over into culture, where Russia has pursued an all-out program of Russification that plays on preexisting tensions over language and politics. The main theater in Mariupol was destroyed in one of the most infamous atrocities of the war when a suspected Russian airstrike in March 2022 killed hundreds of civilians. The theater is being rebuilt, but its troupe is now divided. One group has relocated to western Ukraine, where it stages contemporary political plays in Ukrainian. Those who remain in Mariupol perform undemanding Chekhovian comedies in Russian in the local youth center. Russia is expanding the network of movie theaters in the region—not to screen overt propaganda but to draw people back into everyday Russian popular culture. Moviegoers in Mariupol over the New Year weekend flocked to see Russia’s latest hit comedy, Serf 2. Propaganda films about the war, such as Russia’s 2023 box office disaster, Witness, are nowhere to be seen. People want distraction, not indoctrination, but even that distraction can serve to tie locals closer to Russia. Beyond culture, economic policy is Russia’s most powerful means to co-opt society and effect long-term demographic change in occupied parts of Ukraine. Russia’s welfare system and state salaries are often more generous than Ukraine’s and are aimed at winning over poorer parts of the population and pensioners. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would spend more than one trillion rubles (about $11 billion) a year in the four annexed regions. This includes billions of dollars for a huge reconstruction program in the hope of creating a “New Russia” on the northern shores of the Sea of Azov, recalling Catherine the Great’s eighteenth-century idea of Novorossiya (New Russia). Glossy brochures portray the future of Mariupol as an ersatz Russia-by-the-sea, where any memory of Ukraine has been razed and replaced by Russian apartment blocks, parks, and boulevards. The city was devastated during fighting in 2022, and authorities have rehoused some locals. Many complain, however, that the best new homes are reserved for Russian newcomers. It seems Moscow wants to encourage Russian immigrants to replace those Ukrainian residents who have been dispossessed and forced into exile. Not for the first time in this conflict, Russian actions would violate international law, which explicitly prohibits such population transfers in and out of occupied territories. Many Ukrainians who fled have already lost their properties and their businesses. Since the summer of 2022, the occupation authorities have presided over the mass expropriation of Ukrainian assets—a further blatant violation of international law on occupation. Owners had to turn up within three days with a stack of documents to claim their title if their business was included on a list published by the local authorities of supposedly abandoned assets and companies. Otherwise, it was turned over to local cronies or to Russian entrepreneurs. Since the invasion began in February 2022, the Russian authorities have forcibly registered thousands of Ukrainian businesses, including vast metals plants and local bakeries, in the official Russian corporate database in one of the biggest seizures of property in recent times. Russian companies took control of great swaths of Zaporizhzhia’s prime agricultural land and have been illegally shipping thousands of tons of Ukrainian crops abroad. The port of Mariupol is open again, with ships bringing in construction materials for Russian projects and leaving full of appropriated Ukrainian grain. TIED TO RUSSIA The prospects for the occupied territories are bleak. Ukraine lacks a political and diplomatic strategy to challenge Russia’s occupation over the longer term. Ukrainian policymakers had hoped that a quick and successful military counteroffensive last year would free these territories and roll back Russian forces. That did not come to pass. With the frontline at a territorial stalemate, Ukraine’s chances of regaining full control of the occupied territories by force of arms in 2024 appear slim. Any armistice or freezing of the conflict would draw a line through southern and eastern Ukraine, leaving millions of Ukrainians under Russian rule. As the war grinds on, Russia has time to further consolidate its political, economic, and administrative occupation, making the eventual reintegration of these territories back into Ukraine increasingly difficult. DAVID LEWIS is Professor of Global Politics at the University of Exeter and the author of the forthcoming book Occupation: Russian Rule in South-Eastern Ukraine. ©2024 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.