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A torn-up “September Referendum” sign in Kherson after liberation from Russian troops. November 2022.

Russification Lite How Moscow’s integration plans for occupied Ukraine changed in a year

Source: Meduza
A torn-up “September Referendum” sign in Kherson after liberation from Russian troops. November 2022.
A torn-up “September Referendum” sign in Kherson after liberation from Russian troops. November 2022.
Oleg Petrasyuk / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Vladimir Putin has signed a law that makes a national holiday of the anniversary of Russia’s latest annexations in Ukraine. The new celebration takes place on September 30, the day in 2022 when the Kremlin hosted “dignitaries” from four regions of Ukraine for an “accession agreement”: self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic head Denis Pushilin, self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic head Leonid Pasechnik, and the “administration heads” in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Vladimir Saldo and Evgeny Balitsky.

At the time, Meduza’s sources close to the presidential administration speculated that the Kremlin would soon replace all these collaborators with more prominent Russian officials better integrated into Putin’s existing “power vertical.” Some insiders also said there were tentative plans to unify all four annexed regions into a new, ninth federal district. Former Roscosmos chief and radical conservative politician Dmitry Rogozin was rumored to be in consideration to serve as presidential envoy to this new federal district. (Journalists at Vedomosti also reported on speculation about Rogozin’s name in the mix.)

Vladimir Putin at the ceremony to welcome four annexed regions of Ukraine into the Russian Federation
Grigory Sysoyev / Sputnik / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

But things didn’t go according to plan for the Kremlin. In the fall of 2022, Kyiv mounted a surprisingly successful counteroffensive that knocked Russian troops out of parts of the territory Moscow now claims as its own. Invasion forces even abandoned the city of Kherson, the occupation of which Russia had touted as one of its crowning “achievements” in the war.

Multiple sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the Putin administration has ditched its plans for a separate federal district and is now exploring the inclusion of the newly annexed territories into Russia’s existing Southern Federal District (where Moscow stuck Crimea in 2014). The president’s team is now reportedly focused on “keeping what they’ve got” instead of pushing the new territories to their boundaries as regions of Ukraine.

While Dmitry Rogozin has taken on the surreal position of “senator from Zaporizhzhia,” the local regional administrators have kept their jobs after a year. Sources told Meduza that this is mainly due to the fact that the “serious Russian officials” who would bring the desired weight to these roles simply refuse to live and work permanently in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The prospects for these regions remain “hazy,” one insider said.

A Russian checkpoint leading into Kherson gets a makeover after occupation troops abandon the city
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The officials who left their offices in Russia to take positions in the occupied regions before the fall of 2022 have generally stayed on the job, too, though there are exceptions, like Sergey Eliseev, who spent several months as head of the “Kherson regional government” before returning to his post as Kaliningrad’s lieutenant governor when Ukrainian troops liberated Kherson City. Additionally, “DNR Prime Minister” Vitaly Khotsenko transferred to a position as Omsk’s governor, and “LNR Deputy Prime Minister” Vasily Kuznetsov became governor of Chukotka.

Even high office in Russia’s new lands is far from appealing. The friend of one source who was appointed to a ministerial post in an occupied territory told Meduza that his friend wants to return to Russia but cannot: “It would be like desertion.” “It’s dangerous there, and there are risks — terrorist attacks, airstrikes. He’s waiting to come back, but he’ll keep working,” the source explained.

Other sources told Meduza that it’s especially hard to find willing candidates for lower- and middle-level positions in the occupied territories, despite even Putin’s executive order that doubles their salaries. “The higher pay doesn’t offset the risks,” one Russian regional official told Meduza. 

It’s no easier to hire from the local residents, said two officials who work with Russia’s “new regions.” They told Meduza that even Moscow’s supporters on the ground in Ukraine are often reluctant to take jobs in occupation governments for fear of becoming targets of terrorist attacks or facing collaboration charges if Kyiv’s troops liberate these territories. (Russian officials do indeed die regularly in these regions. For example, Alexey Katerinichev — a senior official in Russia’s Kherson administration — was killed in a missile strike in September 2022.)

To overcome this personnel shortage, the Putin administration has turned to one of its favorite tactics at home and started staging “leadership” contests, hoping to create career ladders that attract talented administrators. Two contest winners have already received appointments as deputy prime ministers of the “DNR.”

The Kremlin has also required regions across the country to take on at least part of the restoration work needed in occupied Ukrainian cities and regions that have been damaged during the invasion. Russian regional governments are expected to draw on their own budgets for these allocations (without additional subsidies from Moscow). In 2023, the Putin administration even closed a loophole that allowed Russia’s poorest regions to abstain from “sponsoring” one of the occupied territories, two sources in these “depression regions” told Meduza. (Far Eastern District Presidential Envoy Yuri Trutnev told the media that Russia’s impoverished regions asked the federal government to cancel their exemption from sponsorships, insisting that they “want to help.”)

A sister city banner celebrating St. Petersburg’s “sponsorship” of Mariupol hangs from a building in the occupied city. August 2023.
Alexandr Suhov / Sputnik / IMAGO / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

A local administration source in Russia’s relatively small North-Western Federal District told Meduza that he doubts governors actually volunteered to sponsor reconstruction efforts in occupied Ukraine, given that they lack the money needed for their own regions. Sergei Kiriyenko, Putin’s domestic policy czar, has reportedly insisted on regional funding for reconstruction efforts in Ukraine. Sponsorship’s exact costs are unclear, but Russian officials previously estimated that the total cost of “infrastructure restoration” to be at least 1.5 trillion rubles (currently about $15 billion). 

A source in the leadership of a major region in central Russia told Meduza that enormous resources have been committed to creating normal living conditions in the occupied regions, but locals in these areas reportedly refuse to “interact closely” with Russians. A large proportion of the people living in the occupied territories likely maintains pro-Ukrainian views, said the Kremlin source.

As the war’s course plays out on the battlefield, it’s unclear how hard Moscow will push the integration of the annexed territories. For now, the regions remain under external control, and “Russification” is proceeding in “lite mode.” (For example, school children in the annexed parts of the Kherson region are now learning to sing the Russian national anthem.)

Another source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that developing Russia’s “new territories” remains part of Putin’s vision for his own legacy and for the nation’s future. “The president is sure that people’s lives there will ultimately be better than they were under Ukraine.

Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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