The Ukrainians in charge of newly Russian-occupied territories
The first step of Putin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine ended with the creation of an occupied bridgehead in the south of the country that's adjacent to Russian-annexed Crimea on one side and to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic on the other. Russia’s military has captured the majority of the Kherson region and part of the Zaporizhzhia region. In the occupied cities, Russian occupants and their collaborators have set up “civilian-military administrations,” hiding the imperial nature of the new regime. Now, the Kremlin is trying to engineer a repeat of what happened in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 — but whether it succeeds will depend on what happens on the battlefield.
On May 11, the Russian-controlled authorities in Ukraine’s Kherson region spoke of the region’s incorporation into Russia as if were already a done deal; while Russia at least went through the motions of conducting a referendum when it annexed Crimea, the Kherson authorities proposed annexation on the basis of their own request to Putin.
“There will be no Kherson People’s Republic and there will be no referendum. There will be a single decree on the basis of a request from the Kherson region’s leadership to the president of the Russian Federation, and there will be a request to incorporate Kherson as a full-fledged region of the Russian Federation,” said Kirill Stremousov, who’s been declared the deputy head of the new “civilian-military administration” in charge of the region.
Moscow officials have reacted with caution. When asked for comment on Stremousov’s statement, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that “the residents of the Kherson region need to determine their own fate,” and that the issue “must be clearly and carefully verified and evaluated by lawyers” since “these kinds of high-stakes decisions must… be absolutely legitimate, just as was the case with Crimea.” Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko, in her turn, stressed that the “decision can only be made by the residents of the Kherson region, and whatever decision they make is their right.”
The following day, Stremousov said that the request to Putin would not be a question of days but of “the foreseeable future,” and it would not occur until “we complete all of the integration processes.”
One way or another, the Russian authorities appear determined to maintain control over the “land corridor” to Crimea, as well as over the North Crimean Canal, which supplies water to the peninsula (and came under complete Russian control on the first day of the war). In the past, a Ukrainian blockade of the canal has led to a drinking water deficit in Crimea, so it's not surprise that establishing a pro-Russian quasi-state modeled after the self-proclaimed Donbas republics is a Russian priority.
The Kremlin’s hope and the Ukrainian reality
Russian leaders’ calculus seems to be based on their memories of 2014, when Ukraine’s internal unrest allowed Moscow to play upon a portion of the population’s separatist desires. Back then, the Kremlin could count on the loyalty of a critical number of local elites with connections to ex-President Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, as well as on more grassroots phenomena like the “anti-Maidan” movement. The conventional wisdom among Russian officials was that a “parade of sovereignty” in Ukraine’s southeastern regions would lead to the creation of a confederation called “Novorossiya,” which would in turn become a Russian protectorate.
One active supporter of the plan was Oleg Tsaryov, a former Verkhovna Rada deputy from the Party of Regions who continues to campaign for Russia to take control of southern Ukraine. (In 2014, Tsaryov left Ukraine under threat of prosecution for separatism; he was later convicted in absentia and sentenced to 12 years in prison).
By and large, the plan — with the exception of part of the Donbas — didn’t work even back then. And even in the self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk "people’s republics," the pro-Russian “elite” essentially had to be rebuilt from scratch, since representatives of the old regional government generally remained loyal to Kyiv or stayed neutral.
In the eight years since Russia annexed Crimea, the situation has gotten worse for them in other ways, too: both Ukrainian society and Ukrainian political elites have rallied around the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty, and the number of people willing to collaborate with the Russian government has dropped. Even worse for Russia, the level of pro-Russian sentiment in Kherson was significantly lower than in the Donbas, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhzhia even back in 2014.
It is true that in the 2020 city and regional council elections, oligarch and Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk’s party Opposition Platform – For Life (OPZZh), the most pro-Russian of Ukraine’s political parties, did well, receiving more votes than all but one other party. The deputies that won, however, have shown no desire to collaborate with the occupation authorities.
“We’re from different parties, but right now we have only one party, the party of Ukrainians, and we all oppose any form of a Kherson People’s Republic,” Kherson City Council OPZZh faction leader Yuri Stelmashenko said in mid-March. Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev, a member of ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s party, agreed: “People want to live in a Ukrainian Kherson and Kherson region, not in a quasi-republic.”
Until April 26, Kolykhaiev continued to work in the city and remained loyal to Ukraine, flying the Ukrainian flag on the city council building. But then the Russian military began forming “military-civilian administrations” in occupied cities as an alternative to the democratically elected Ukrainian authorities, filling the ranks with formerly low-level staff members.
Ukraine's best mayor 2008
The most influential regional politician to support Russia’s occupation of southern Ukraine was Volodymyr Saldo. He served as the mayor of Kherson from 2002 to 2012 (and was declared Ukraine’s best mayor in 2008) before being elected to the Verkhovna Rada as a Party of Regions member. In January 2014, he voted for then-President Yanukovich’s “dictatorship laws” intended to crack down on protesters after the Maidan Revolution.
With business interests in the construction industry, Saldo is known as a major donor to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and has received awards from the Russian Orthodox Church (for restoring Kherson’s Uspensky Cathedral). After Yanukovich was removed from power, Saldo became a regular guest on Russian talk shows.
In 2016, Saldo was accused of attempting to kidnap a Kherson businessman in the Dominican Republic. The man allegedly had recordings of Saldo bragging about deals he made with Russian FSB agents in 2014, which Saldo was worried could be used to blackmail him. After that, Ukraine’s Security Service began investigating Saldo’s supposed cooperation with the FSB, but he was ultimately never charged.
In the 2020 local elections, Saldo ran for mayor of Kherson once again, but lost in the second round to Ihor Kolykhaiev. His personal party, Volodymyr Saldo’s Party, found limited representation in the local government: five deputies (out of 64) in the Kherson regional council and nine (out of 76) in the city council.
As for the occupation authorities, Saldo initially took a cautious stance; his assistant claimed the Russian authorities were forcing him to cooperate. In mid-March, however, the ex-mayor showed up at a rally in support of the new, Russian-imposed order, justifying his appearance by saying he wanted to prevent radical pro-Russian activists from establishing a Kherson People’s Republic.
A chauffeur and a COVID dissident
It was around that time that Saldo helped create the collaborationist Rescue Committee for Peace and Order; a month later, on April 26, he became head of the Kherson region’s “military-civilian administration” after the Kolykhaiev-headed city council was captured by Russian troops.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General charged Saldo with suspected treason. Meanwhile, Kolykhaiev’s former chauffeur, a man named Alexander Kobets, was put in charge of the now pro-Russian city council, according to Ukrainian media reports.
Local pro-Russian blogger (and former Fish Inspector) Kirill Stremousov, who’s been an activist since the late 2000s, is also part of the Rescue Committee. Stremousov’s views are based on a mix of far-right Orthodox Christianity and the anti-Semitic “Concept of Public Safety,” a conspiracy theory popular among members of Russia’s extreme right. He’s been arrested multiple times for fighting with his political opponents and for disturbing the peace. He’s had a profile on Myrotvorets, a Ukrainian site that contains information about people accused of colluding with Russia or participating in separatist movements, since 2018. Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Stremousov organized protests against quarantine restrictions. In 2020, he ran for mayor of Kherson and received 1.3 percent of the vote. On March 17, 2022, Stremousov was charged with suspected treason.
Other Rescue Committee members also had connections to Medvedchuk; the Ukrainian Communist Party, which was banned in 2015; and various other pro-Russian organizations. After 2014, many of them faced problems with Ukraine’s intelligence agencies. For example, one of the committee’s activists, Tatyana Kuzmich, was named a person of interest in a treason case, but she was released on bail in 2020.
Zaporizhzhia’s cautious ‘people’s mayors’
Russian-occupied cities in the nearby Zaporizhzhia Oblast also have newly-formed occupation governments. And like in Kherson, Russia has had to rely on people heretofore little-known to locals to fill out the new administration.
In Melitopol, Vladimir Rogov, formerly a close associate of Oleg Tsaryov and one of the organizers of the anti-Maidan movement in Zaporizhzhia, has declared himself mayor. In September 2014, as part of a prisoners’ exchange, he ended up in Russia, where he started publicly claiming to be the head of something called the Novorossiya State Construction Committee and the leader of the Slavic Guard movement; he also began fundraising for the DNR and the LNR. In March 2022, he started referring to himself as a member of the “Zaporizhzhia regional military-civil administration.”
Meanwhile, city council member Galina Danilchenko became Melitopol’s new “people’s mayor.” Danilchenko is a member of the Opposition Bloc, a fragment of the pro-Russian Party of Regions led by Yevhen Murayev; before the war began, Murayev was seen as a possible candidate to head a nationwide collaborationist government.
The phrase “people’s mayor” itself is also a creation of 2014: along with “people’s governors,” they became the first public representatives of Donbas separatism. The positions generally had a high turnover rate.
Self-appointed mayors also appeared in the city of Berdyansk, where Union of Left Forces representative Alexander Saulenko took power, and in the city of Enerhodar, where Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant engineer Andrey Shevchik took power.
About two thirds of the Zaporizhzhia region are currently under Russian or Donbas separatist control. Still, the newly installed local authorities seem to be playing it safe, likely fearing the uncertainty of the near future and the possibility of Ukrainians who don’t support Russia seeking revenge — especially after the murders of the pro-Russian activists Pavlo Slobodchikov and Valery Kuleshov in Kherson. The names of the perpetrators have still not been released publicly.
Though no specific plans for the newly occupied territories have been announced yet, Russia is moving full steam ahead with the assimilation process: it’s replacing Ukrainian state symbols with Russian ones, putting rubles into commission instead of the hryvnia, and broadcasting Russian TV channels on the airwaves.
Representatives of the occupied administrations are already busy planning for the future. In an interview with TASS, Vladimir Saldo said that “if this territory becomes part of the Russian Federation, then the entire set of laws and the government’s structure will be Russian. Maybe — this is my assumption — some kind of federal district that includes Crimea, the Kherson region, and the Zaporizhzhia region will be created, though the separate regions will remain intact. There are no plans to change the administrative or territorial structures.”
Crimean officials are indeed doing their best to expand into Ukraine. On April 15, the TV network Crimea 24 began broadcasting on the territory of the Kherson region, and the Crimean authorities have been supplying humanitarian aid. There are rumors that Crimean Republic head Sergey Aksyonov wouldn’t mind being put in charge of a new, expanded territory under the auspices of Crimea; even some pro-Russian Crimean Tatar organizations have joined the call for this plan. “Crimean Tatars consider it right, fair, and historically justified to return these territories to Russian Crimea, either within the borders of the Crimean Khanate or within the borders of the Taurida Governorate,” said National and Cultural Autonomy of Crimean Tatars head Eivaz Umerov.
When Kirill Stremoisov said there wouldn’t be a referendum in Kherson, he received tacit support from Crimean senator Sergei Tsekov, who said in a statement that since nobody in the world had recognized the 2014 referendum in Crimea anyways, this time they might as well save money and make do with a sociological survey instead of a referendum.
As various pro-Russian politicians have made their grandiose plans, however, one party has remained silent: the Kremlin itself. This is probably because it’s still unclear how the war will end; for Russia to take complete control of the region, it needs to capture Mykolaiv and Odessa. And those cities’ Ukrainian defenders will fight to the last to maintain Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.
In addition, President Zelensky has called holding a referendum in Kherson a red line that would preclude the possibility peaceful negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
And while negotiations are essentially not happening at the moment, the Kremlin could theoretically use the Kherson region as a territorial bargaining chip if the “special operation” doesn’t go according to plan and Russian troops are forced to retreat from the Donbas. As the conflict continues to escalate, however, that kind of swap looks less and less likely; Ukraine’s official position is that it will take back the occupied territories by force. Ukrainian Interior Ministry advisor Viktor Andrusiv announced on May 11 that the government is developing a plan to liberate the Kherson region.