How the Kremlin is forcing Ukrainians to embrace Russian life

They handed out Russian passports, mobile phone numbers and set-top boxes for watching Russian television. They replaced the Ukrainian currency with the ruble, rerouted the internet through Russian servers, and arrested hundreds of those who resisted assimilation.

On a large and small scale, the occupying authorities in the territory reclaimed by Moscow’s troops are using fear and indoctrination to force Ukrainians to accept the Russian way of life. “We are one people”, blue-white-red billboards to tell. “We are with Russia.”

Now comes the next phase of the war of conquest proposed by President Vladimir Putin in the 21st century: a massive “referendum.”

Russian-appointed administrators in towns, villages and cities like Kherson in southern Ukraine are setting the stage for a vote as early as September, which the Kremlin will present as the region’s popular desire to become part of Russia. They are recruiting pro-Russian locals into new “electoral commissions” and promoting to Ukrainian citizens the supposed benefits of joining their country; they are even reportedly already printing ballots.

Any referendum would be completely illegitimate, Ukrainian and Western officials say, but it would have dire consequences. Analysts in both Moscow and Ukraine expect this to serve as a prelude to Mr. Putin. Putin’s formal declaration of the conquered territory as Russian territory protected by Russian nuclear weapons makes future attempts by Kyiv to oust Russian troops potentially much more costly.

The annexation will also be Europe’s largest territorial expansion since World War II, affecting an area several times the size of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula, which mr. Putin came to power in 2014..

The prospect of another annexation also affected the military schedule, forcing Kyiv to launch a risky counteroffensive rather than wait for the arrival of more ranged Western weapons that would increase the chances of success.

“Having a referendum is not difficult at all,” Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of Russia-imposed Crimean parliament, said in a telephone interview this week. “They will ask: “Take us under your guardianship, under your development, under your protection.”

mr. Konstantinov, longtime pro-Russian politician in Crimea, sat next to Mr. Paste in the Kremlin, when the President of Russia signed a document on the annexation of the peninsula to Russia. He also helped orchestrate a Crimean “referendum” in which 97 percent voted to join Russia, a result widely dismissed as bogus by the international community.

Now, Mr. Konstantinov said he was in constant contact with the Russian-imposed occupying authorities in the neighboring Kherson region, which Russian troops captured at the start of the war. He said he was told by the authorities a few days ago that they had begun printing ballots for the purpose of holding a vote in September.

Kherson region is one of four regions in which authorities are signaling planned referendums, along with Zaporizhzhia in the south and Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east. The Kremlin argues that the residents of the area should “determine their future” themselves. Putin hinted last month that he was counting on the complete annexation of the regions: he compared the war in Ukraine with the aggressive wars of Peter the Great in the 18th century and said that, like the Russian tsar, “it also fell to us to return” the lost Russian lands.

At the same time, the Kremlin appears to be keeping options open, offering few specifics. Aleksey Chesnakov, a Moscow-based political consultant who has advised the Kremlin on Ukraine policy, said Moscow views referendums on joining Russia as its “base case” although preparations for a potential vote have yet to be completed. He declined to say whether he himself was involved in the process.

“The referendum scenario looks realistic and a priority in the absence of signals from Kyiv about readiness for negotiations on a settlement,” he said. Chesnakov said this in a written response to questions. “The legal and political vacuum, of course, needs to be filled.”

As a result, the struggle to mobilize the inhabitants of the Russian-occupied territories for the referendum is becoming more visible on the ground, which is portrayed as an initiative of local leaders.

Russian-appointed authorities in Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, for example, announced this week that they were forming “selection commissions” to prepare for a referendum that one official said could take place on September 1. 11 is the day when local and regional elections are to be held throughout Russia.

ad invited residents to apply to join the electoral commission by providing a copy of their passport, education documents and two ID-sized photographs.

Officials are accompanying the preparations for the vote with an intensified propaganda campaign, setting up both the residents of the district and domestic audiences in Russia for the impending annexation. A new pro-Russian newspaper in the Zaporozhye region last week headlined its second issue with the headline: “There will be a referendum!” In the main weekly newscast on Russian state television last Sunday, a report promised that “everything is being done to ensure that Kherson returns to its historical homeland as soon as possible.”

“Russia is starting to roll out a version of what could be called an annexation game,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said this month, comparing the preparations for the referendum to the Kremlin’s 2014 actions trying to justify its actions. annexation of Crimea. “Forcible annexation would be a flagrant violation of the UN Charter and we will not allow this to go unpunished or unpunished.”

In Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, officials say any referendum to merge with Russia or create a Russian dependent state in the occupied territories would be illegal, riddled with fraud and do nothing to legitimize land grabs.

For Ukrainian civilians, the occupation was accompanied by many hardships, including a shortage of cash and medicines, a situation that the Russians are trying to exploit to garner local support by distributing “humanitarian aid.”

Those aspiring to a normal life are being encouraged to apply for a Russian passport, now required for things like registering a car or certain types of business; newborns and orphans are automatically registered as citizens of Russia.

“There is no money in Kherson, there is no job in Kherson,” said Andrei, 33, who worked in the service department of a car dealership in the city before the war. He left his home in the city with his wife and small child in early July and moved to Western Ukraine.

“Kherson returned to the 1990s, when only vodka, beer and cigarettes were sold,” he said.

After taking control of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, Russian forces sought out pro-Kremlin Ukrainian officials and placed them in government positions.

At the same time, they engaged in an ongoing crackdown on dissent that included kidnapping, torturing, and executing political and cultural leaders who were considered a threat, according to witnesses interviewed by The New York Times, Western and Ukrainian officials, and independent humanitarian groups. like Human Rights Watch.

The Russian occupiers cut off access to Ukrainian cellular communications and restricted access to YouTube and the popular messenger Viber. They introduced the ruble and began to change the school curriculum to the Russian one, which is increasingly trying to impress children mr. Putin’s worldview.

The first priority seems to have been to get the locals to watch Russian television: employees of the Russian state broadcaster in Crimea were sent to Kherson to start a news broadcast called “Kherson and Zaporozhye 24”, and set-top boxes were distributed giving access to Russian radio waves. for free – or even delivered to residents who can’t pick them up in person.

In an interview late last month, Igor Kolykhaev, mayor of the city of Kherson since 2020, said that Russian propaganda, combined with a sense of being abandoned by the authorities in Kyiv, is gradually succeeding in changing the perception of some of the residents who are left behind – mostly pensioners and low-income people.

“I think something is changing in attitudes, probably in people’s habits,” he said, estimating that 5 to 10 percent of his voters have changed their minds because of the propaganda.

“This is an irreversible process that will happen in the future,” he added. “And that’s what I’m really worried about. Then it will be almost impossible to restore it.”

mr. Kolykhaev told in a video interview from a makeshift office in Kherson. A few days later, his assistant reported that he had been kidnapped by pro-Russian occupying forces. As of Friday, he had not heard anything.

mr. Putin named Kherson and other parts of southeastern Ukraine Novorossiya or Novorossiya, a region named after it was conquered by Catherine the Great in the 18th century and became part of the Russian Empire. In recent years, nostalgia in the region for the Soviet past and skepticism about the pro-Western authorities in Kyiv still persists among the older generationeven when a new Ukrainian identity was being formed in the region.

This spring, at the beginning of the occupation, the people of Kherson repeatedly gathered in large-scale and noisy protests to challenge Russian troops, even if they provoked shooting in response. This open confrontation has largely ended, according to Ivan, a 30-year-old lifelong resident of Kherson, who remains in the city and asked not to be named due to the risk of public speaking.

“As soon as a large crowd of people gathers, soldiers immediately appear,” he said by phone. “It’s really life-threatening at the moment.”

But signs of resistance are clear, residents say.

“Our people go out at night and draw Ukrainian flags,” said another man, Andrei. “They write in yellow and blue letters: “We believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Andrew E. Kramer as well as Alina Lobzina made a report.