Annexation to armed resistance: the fight for southern Ukraine

Putin may have annexed parts of Ukraine, but Russia’s hold on Kherson, in particular, is weakening daily

For five days in late September, residents of occupied eastern and southern Ukraine were persuaded – in the presence of armed Russian soldiers – by local collaborators and visiting Russian officials to vote in a sham referendum on joining the Russian Federation.

Unsurprisingly, the results went Russia’s way and Vladimir Putin formally annexed the four regions – Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south – in a stage-managed ceremony in Moscow last Friday. In a long and angry speech, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, threatened a nuclear response if Ukraine made any efforts to take back any territory.

However, the Ukrainian military seems to have done exactly that – it has made further incursions into Kherson and Donetsk regions.

On Monday, as the Russian parliament rubber-stamped the annexation, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the future borders of the newly annexed territories “would be consulted on together with their residents”. A hint to many, that the final borders of Russia’s “new territory” are not yet set in stone.

Below we explain how the sham referendums played out, and how the resistance movement within the occupied regions, particularly Kherson, are fighting back.

Confusion in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia

The voting dates of the so-called ‘referendum’ in southern and eastern Ukraine were suddenly announced on 20 September. The dates were immediate: 23 to 27 September.

But there was some confusion about what this meant.

Until the last moment, the occupying authorities in Zaporizhzhia region could not say which exact territories were declaring independence and asking to join the Russian Federation. The Russian army had seized 60% of the region in March, but failed to move further since.

Just the week before, Evgeny Balitsky, head of the pro-Russian administration, had publicly postponed the referendum in Zaporizhzhia indefinitely, citing residents’ “safety”.

On the eve of the vote, Vladimir Rogov (who calls himself a member of the “main council” of the Zaporizhzhia administration) promised that the referendum would determine the future of the entire region. Including the city of Zaporizhzhia itself, a million-strong sprawling agglomeration that is still under Kyiv control and is an important humanitarian and defence hub for central Ukraine.

But the very next day Rogov claimed that only territories under Russian control would declare independence. The remaining territories (including Zaporizhzhia city), he said, would hold votes after “liberation”.

Similarly, the self-proclaimed ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk have failed to take control of all the territories in those regions that have now “requested” to join the Russian Federation. (The Kremlin recognised their independence on the eve of the invasion in February.)

Just before the referendum, Russian forces quickly attached several villages from the neighbouring Mykolaiv region to the “newly independent” Kherson region – a kind of compensation for the Kherson villages liberated by Ukraine in the summer.

No surprise

The referendum itself did not come as a surprise. The original goal of the “special military operation”, according to the Kremlin, was to protect the independence of the “Donbas republics” by changing the government in Kyiv.

In late February, as soon as Russian forces occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, rumours began about these regions’ potential plans for independence. A member of Kherson regional council claimed that the Russian military were asking him and other deputies to organise a referendum in support of a ‘Kherson People’s Republic’.

Locals’ refusal to collaborate surprised the Russians. It seems that many military officials expected a warm welcome in Kherson, but instead they were met with numerous rallies in support of Ukraine.

Eventually, in the second half of April, Russian soldiers began to disperse these rallies; participants were kidnapped, tortured and even killed. Vladimir Saldo, a former mayor of Kherson, was made head of the occupying military administration, with conspiracy blogger Kirill Stremousov as his deputy.

Saldo and Stremousov both initially denied any plans for a people’s republic or a referendum. Yet they soon started talking about the prospects of Kherson joining the Russian Federation. In May, the Kremlin publicly rejected this idea, saying that the residents of Kherson region should decide their future on their own.

As Yury Sobolevsky, head of the Servant of the People group in the Kherson regional council in exile, recalls, the Kremlin’s plans for Kherson have shifted from setting up a “people’s republic”, to a “Novorossiya” (New Russia) statelet encompassing southern Ukraine and the Russian-backed Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria, to unifying Kherson with Crimea.

“The occupation administration did not have any independent plans, and does not have any,” said Sobolevsky. “There is only the fulfilment of Moscow’s tasks, and in the Kremlin, obviously, they change their plans according to the situation at the front.

“In the end, [Russia] settled on a referendum for independence and joining the Russian Federation – a method tested eight years ago in Crimea.”

The example of Crimea

The Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s occupied territories via fake referendums certainly harks back to Russia’s capture of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

The rigged referendum in Crimea not only marked the beginning of a long conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but also set a new course in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Putin and his protegés deployed the vote as an “instrument of direct democracy”, referring to the right to self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter.

The final ‘result’ – in which 96.77% of Crimeans supposedly voted to secede from Ukraine – was important to the Kremlin for domestic political reasons. Such a high percentage of support by Crimeans for joining the Russian Federation instilled faith in many Russians that Putin’s rule was morally and politically correct.

Having failed to achieve a landslide victory in Ukraine after seven months of fighting, the Kremlin arranged the new ‘referendums’ in southern and eastern Ukraine. Again, the results were aimed exclusively at Russian citizens.

But this time, unlike in Crimea in 2014, there was no rhetoric of protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians or even freezing the war on Russia’s “new borders”. Instead, defending these new territories is set to become an argument for continuing the war against Ukraine, a justification for mobilising hundreds of thousands of reserve troops. And a pretext for nuclear threats.

Ignoring the formalities

Convincing the Russian population that millions of Ukrainians under occupation really, really want to become part of Russia is much easier  – and more important to the Kremlin – than convincing the United Nations.

This could be why the vote organisers did not bother to comply with even the basic formalities, says Sobolevsky.

The ballot papers for residents of Kherson, for example, presented two questions – whether to support Kherson’s independence, and whether to join the Russian Federation – as a single question.

For the first four days of voting, polling station staff went door to door accompanied by armed soldiers, or asked passers-by to vote on the street. According to Sobolevsky, people were told “the main thing is to vote”, and they were also allowed to vote on behalf of absent relatives. On the final day, only a few polling stations were open.

Independent scrutiny of the voting process was impossible. Ukrainian and foreign journalists are not allowed into the occupied territories, and only pro-Kremlin Russian media could send correspondents. Their task was to report the “official figures” and capture the unprecedented enthusiasm of local residents. Conspiracy theorists and propagandists arrived to play the role of “international observers”.

Kherson Telegram channels discovered that Russian TV reports showed the same “enthusiastic voters” appearing at different polling stations.

Sobolevsky is sure of one thing: the result of almost 500,000 votes for seceding from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation has nothing to do with reality.

“Some 50–60% of people have left [Kherson], which has a million inhabitants,” he says. “There simply aren’t that many people left that allegedly voted.”

Resistance groups fighting back

There is a strong and active resistance movement within the occupied territories, but it’s a subject of great secrecy for the Ukrainian authorities. Afraid of revealing the identity of participants, the military, security services and officials talk in half hints.

In April, a group known as Yellow Ribbon appeared in Kherson during rallies against the Russian occupation. Ivan (not his real name), a coordinator for the group, told openDemocracy that many of the original members “already knew one another” via school or university before the invasion.

“When it became impossible to rally, we started sticking pro-Ukrainian leaflets everywhere,” Ivan said. “The leaflets infuriate the Russian occupiers, and inspire our citizens, reminding them that [the occupied territories are part of] Ukraine.”

According to Ivan, Yellow Ribbon now coordinates more than 1,000 people across Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donbas and Crimea, via Telegram. Patriotic graffiti and posters threatening those who collaborate with the Russian administrations remain the movement’s most effective tools.

He said they also collect information about the movements of Russian troops and military equipment, but cannot reveal to whom this information is transmitted.

Ivan told openDemocracy he believes there are several unrelated underground groups in Kherson alone. “The Ukrainian army hits the city every day. And not just the bridges that everyone knows about, but also barracks where Russian soldiers have only just entered. Someone is transmitting fresh and accurate coordinates. It would be logical if [Ukrainian] intelligence collected such data from different sources,” he said.

Direct strikes

In recent weeks, Ukraine’s armed forces have been shelling the Kherson region on a daily basis. Western weapons make it possible to strike not only from afar, but also accurately, avoiding accidental casualties.

Back in the summer, with the help of new US missile systems such as HIMARS and M270, Ukrainian forces managed to disable bridges across the Dnipro river. Russian pontoon crossings, ammunition depots and command posts have also become targets – as have local collaborators. The Ukrainian armed forces and security services do not take responsibility for these assassination attempts, instead law enforcement opens criminal investigations into high treason and collaboration.

On 16 September, several rockets hit the Kherson regional administration building; the target was allegedly the office of second-in-command Kirill Stremousov. On 25 September, a rocket hit a hotel, killing former Ukrainian politician Alexey Zhuravko, who was known for his anti-Ukraine views and had arrived in Kherson on the eve of the ‘referendum’.

Last Friday, a few hours before Putin formalised the annexation of southern and eastern Ukraine, Alexey Katerinichev, a leading representative of the Kherson occupation administration, was killed in a missile strike. A high-ranking employee of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, Katerinichev had also served in the FSB. A Russian journalist claimed that the Ukrainian missile hit Katerinichev’s apartment in Kherson directly.

The Kherson resistance movement not only assists the Ukrainian military, it also carries out attacks on high-profile collaborators itself.

In August, an ex-Ukrainian MP who had taken up the post of deputy head of agriculture in the occupation administration was killed – in the second attempt on his life. In September, an improvised explosive device went off in the stairwell of a building where Tatyana Tomilina was living. A university lecturer, Tomilina had agreed to act as university rector for the occupation. Tomilina survived, but her bodyguard died in the attack.

On the eve of the sham referendum, arrests became more frequent in Kherson. Russian media reported on the discovery of at least four sabotage groups and published videos of interrogations in which so-called “terrorists” confessed to preparing attacks on civilians. Sources in the Ukrainian security services refuse to comment on these arrests, claiming that the occupying authorities will use any pretext for “terror” against civilian residents.

Still, the Ukrainian army continues to liberate occupied territory. In the past few days, Ukrainian forces liberated the Donbas town of Lyman and several villages in the north of Kherson region. Russia reacted to these latest developments by appointing new commanders in its western military district.

As Vladimir Putin claims, however, Russia’s need to defend its “new territories” in south and eastern Ukraine could provoke the Kremlin to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. That said, when asked by journalists, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov remarked that “irresponsible people talk” about using nuclear weapons.

“We don’t want to develop this topic,” he said.