Russian forces are squeezing out locals and resettling Russian citizens in Ukraine’s occupied territories.
In November, in Washington, I met a family from Novotroitske, a small settlement in the occupied part of Kherson Oblast. They fled the war and occupation and desperately tried to find someone to live in their apartment. When I asked why it was so important, Iryna, the mother of the family, told me abandoned apartments were being seized by Russian soldiers, and “we don’t want to give ours to them.”
It is a cry from the heart which reflects the despair of many who were able to escape. They can’t be there, but don’t want other people, especially the occupiers, taking what’s theirs. And Iryna’s fears have been reflected in reports from across occupied Ukraine.
“There are a lot of messages on social media that people from Chechnya, Buryatia, and other nationalities have arrived in Mariupol from Russia,” said 39-year-old Inna, who managed to get out of the blockaded city in March 2022. The apartment she had lived in was hit by a rocket, and the nine-story building was set alight by an attack two days after they left.
Inna owned a bakery in Mariupol, and like millions of Ukrainians was not prepared for the full-scale invasion. After several weeks of constant shelling, as many as 200 explosions a day, and life in a basement, she managed to escape with her parents and sister.
She tries not to look at images or videos of her home city because it hurts too much. “If it’s a photo, it’s hard to recognize the city, because Mariupol was completely destroyed,” she said. “It’s like seeing a corpse that’s almost completely burned — when the person can only be recognized by some personal marks. Only someone who knows an area of the city very well can recognize it in a photo.”
After bombing Mariupol and making it uninhabitable, the Russians announced they would rebuild the city. It has been twinned with St Petersburg, and at least 25 organizations from Vladimir Putin’s hometown are involved in financing construction work.
The Russian strategy is to saturate occupied Ukraine with other ethnicities and blur the Ukrainian identity. The Kremlin has sent a lot of workers to Mariupol, particularly Russian indigenous peoples, including Buryats, Tuvans, representatives of Caucasian nationalities, and people from Central Asia.
Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol and exiled resident of the city, said that, as well as displacing Ukrainians and providing a workforce, Russia was moving out people it didn’t want in its cities. “Moscow and St. Petersburg breathed out a sigh of relief,” he said.
Around 40,000 people have relocated to Mariupol, encouraged by promises of higher salaries, according to Andriushchenko. The average pay for construction work is 230,000 rubles ($2,550) a month, he explained. “There are no such salaries in Russia now. That’s why they go to Mariupol,” he said. “At first, Mariupol residents were hired for construction work, now they’re not.”
The shift in population is happening so fast that, if the city is not liberated, 80% of its population will be Russian within five years, he added.
There are hundreds of similar stories across the occupied territories. In Zaporizhzhia Oblast, doctors from Murmansk have been brought in to treat patients at the Primorsk District Hospital, while workers from the Chuvash Republic are repairing damaged buildings in the village of Osypenko. In Luhansk Oblast, the occupiers have provided Russian citizens with immediate accommodation, employment, and affordable loans for the purchase of housing.
Approximately 60% of the residents of Melitopol, in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, have left the city and moved to territory controlled by Ukraine. “Instead, they have been replaced by citizens of Russia, who in most cases have family ties to units of the Russian Armed Forces and representatives of the occupation administrations,” Ukraine’s National Resistance Center reported in May. “Accordingly, almost all residential properties abandoned by native residents are occupied.”
It’s hard to believe someone would want to go to live in a city as comprehensively destroyed as Mariupol, but people also want to buy property there. Russian immigrants explain they want to live by the sea and believe active hostilities are already behind them.
Real estate advertisements show buildings bearing the scars of war, including a half-destroyed five-room property, which was clearly a comfortable middle-class home, with a sign saying “People” still on its front wall to try to deter soldiers and a shell-damaged entrance fence. It’s on sale for $50,000.
Russia’s strategy, to resettle people and change the population in areas of Ukraine occupied since the full-scale invasion, echoes both the Soviet era mass deportations of Ukrainians and the more recent program in Crimea. Between 600,000 and a million, Russians have moved to live in Crimea since 2014, according to various estimates.
There is no chance that Moscow will stop saturating Ukrainian territories with Russians, carrying out mass deportations of Ukrainians, or abducting Ukrainian children unless all the occupied territories are liberated by Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
Ukraine’s authorities, and those who fled the occupied territories, believe they can win, and residents will be able to return to their homes after liberation.
“I believe in de-occupation, I hope it won’t take long, as my parents are in their 70s and they dream of returning home,” said Inna, the entrepreneur from Mariupol. “It will be necessary to prepare psychologically to see the city as it is now.” She lives in the UK as a refugee, but can’t stop thinking about how she will be able to rebuild her business and her life in her native city.