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Russian military vehicles in Kharkiv. March 2022

What's going on in Russian-occupied Ukraine? Meduza sorts out the facts.

Source: Meduza
Russian military vehicles in Kharkiv. March 2022
Russian military vehicles in Kharkiv. March 2022
Russian Defense Ministry / Scanpix / LETA

Russian propaganda networks have reported a 'new governing body' in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied territories. The truth is different.

On March 16, both RT and Radio Sputnik reported that a “founding congress” for “a new governing body” called the “Rescue Committee for Peace and Order” had been held in Ukraine’s Kherson region. RT’s reporting included a video that shows several people sitting at a table in the regional administration building; one man says that the “current regional authority has effectively ceased to exist” and that the region needs a structure “that can take responsibility for restoring order.” He then adds that “for him personally,” “the Russian Federation is a priority.” Both RT and Sputnik’s articles are titled “Kherson’s new regional authorities call for establishing ties with Russia.”

The “founding congress” of Kherson’s new “regional authorities”

The people shown in the video include activist Kirill Stremousov (he’s the one speaking), former Kherson mayor and current City Council deputy Volodymyr Saldo, City Council deputy Igor Semenchev, and former professor Tatyana Kuzmich, who was arrested by the Ukrainian intelligence services in 2020 on suspicion of working for the FSB. On March 13, this same set of people appeared in a small rally marking the one-year anniversary of Kherson’s "liberation from fascists," where they displayed communist symbols that are banned in Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that the rally allowed Kherson residents to publicly “honor the memory of Soviet warriors” for the first time since 2015, and Russian state news network Perviy Kanal showed a video of Stremousov at the rally promising to “cleanse the city of fascism.” In reality, thousands of people had come to the city to protest in support of Ukraine.

RT’s video appears to have been staged: there’s no evidence to support the idea that the participants of the “founding congress” in Kherson are a legitimate “new authority.” On March 16, Igor Semenchev, who was featured in the video, said in a Facebook post that he had been arrested by pro-Russian forces before the "congress" and taken to the regional administration building. “They sat me at the table, then Stremousov started broadcasting, and then they invited us to speak. [City Council deputy Volodymyr] Saldo was dead set against it, and I refused, too. Then they let me go, but they kept Saldo there,” Semenchev wrote.

Semenchev believes that all of this was due to the fact that at the March 13 rally, he and Saldo had allegedly spoken out against the establishment of a "Kherson People’s Republic"; according to Saldo, a referendum on the declaration of a new republic had been planned for the day of the rally, but the two men and their associates had prevented it. “I couldn't betray my soul — my soul is Kherson and Kherson is Ukraine,” he said. Two of the people featured in RT’s video have thus publicly spoken out against the “new authority,” and one has said he was forced to participate in the sham congress.

It’s hard to tell to what degree the official Ukrainian authorities’ powers in Kherson have been hindered by the Russian occupation, though both the regional and city authorities have continued keeping residents up to date on the war, the economy, their own work, and the spread of disinformation. On March 17, the Kherson regional prosecutor announced the beginning of an investigation into the “pseudo-authorities in the Kherson region.”

The Russian authorities have always insisted they have no plans to occupy Ukraine. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov refused to answer Meduza’s question about whether Russia has any connections to the attempts to establish alternative “authorities” on Russian occupied territory and redirected Meduza to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Security forces in Russian occupied territory are kidnapping people

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been numerous Ukrainian media reports of Russian security forces kidnapping people on Russian occupied territory.

Multiple witnesses told Hromadske that Russian security officials have gone after right-wing activists, combatants who fought in the Donbas, human rights workers, and Crimean Tatars. According to local activists, one of the people who has worked as an informant for Russian security forces is congress participant Kirill Stremousov. On March 12, journalist Oleg Baturin disappeared in the region; on March 15, Donbas fighter Maxim Negrov did, too. On March 17, Kherson regional deputy Sergey Khlan reported that local farmers were being forced to sign “cooperation agreements,” which will require them to provide food for the Russian army.

According to the Ukrainian authorities, five local officials are currently being held by Russian security forces in the occupied and surrounding territories. After Skadovsk mayor Alexander Yakovlev was kidnapped on March 16, local residents held a rally to demand his release. In response, Russian security forces fired into the air, applied tear gas, and deployed smoke bombs. Yakovlev has since been freed, but his deputy, Yury Palyukh, has not.

Another Ukrainian official being held by Russia is Melitopol district council chairman Serhii Priyma, who was detained on March 13. Other hostages have included Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov (freed on March 16 in exchange for nine Russian soldiers) and activist Olga Gaisumova, who has coordinated protests against the occupation. On March 17, the Melitopol authorities reported that Russian security forces were going door-to-door and searching people’s homes.

After Fedorov’s kidnapping, pro-Russian officials reported that a new government would be established in Melitopol, too. City Council deputy Galina Danilchenko announced the formation of “people’s committees,” while Russian propaganda outlets like Radio Sputnik began referring to her as the city’s “acting mayor.” Judging by social media reports, Danilchenko, who the Ukrainian Attorney General’s office is investigating for treason, has been participating in events designed to promote an image of her as the city's mayor.

The official Russian authorities have not commented on reports of kidnapping in Ukraine’s occupied territories, nor have they commented on the Ukrainian authorities’ reports that Melitopol’s mayor was exchanged for nine Russian soldiers.

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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