Russia heats up its annexation machine, a necessity for victory
"Imagine that little by little the radio stations are all Russian. Television is no longer Ukrainian. Only Russian banks cover your city. And from one day to the next, you no longer live in Ukraine. You live in Russia". This is how Maria, a Ukrainian citizen who until 2014 had her home on the outskirts of Simferopol, Crimea, explains it.
Although more than 8 years have passed, she still remembers it with a certain nervousness and a sense of helplessness. And after those eight years, the same situation seems to be about to unfold in yet more regions of war-torn Ukraine, with Russia tearing away the shreds under the blows of its artillery roller.
The predictions made by US intelligence in mid-July 2022 seem to be coming true. Russian media are talking about holding a referendum in the Zaporiyya Oblast in September, coinciding with the Russian elections, the same dates predicted by the White House. The object of the referendum would be simple: the Ukrainian region's accession to the Russian Federation.
"It is likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to annex southern and eastern Ukraine to Russia in the coming months to consolidate his control over these territories and possibly deter Ukrainian counter-attacks," commented analysts Katherine Lawlor and Mason Clark of the US Institute for the Study of War in May. The territories they see as threatened by these plans are those closest to Russia's current de facto borders. Zaporiyia, parts of Kherson and the Lugansk and Donetsk regions.
As both analysts point out, Russia does not even hide or qualify its ambitions in the Ukrainian region. When Kirill Stremousov, a member of United Russia (President Putin's party), visited Kherson in May, he openly asserted that 'Russia is here for good' in front of cameras filming him strolling peacefully through the city occupied by Russian armed forces.
"In Kherson there is nothing left of Ukraine from an institutional point of view," says Julio Suárez, the Spanish businessman who made Kherson known throughout Spain through his son Vitaly, who distributes food to the needy in the region. "At first they let the mayor of the city continue working, but after a while they arrested him. No authority loyal to the Ukrainian government has been in charge in Kherson since the Russian army occupied the city", he continues.
In Kherson, Russia put an old acquaintance of Putin's government in charge of the region. Volodymir Saldo, a politician and member of former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych's party. "He was a key man for the Russians, and once the Russian occupation took place, the Russians admitted him to their team". The city is now under the control of a civilian-military government run by Russian army commanders and collaborationists.
The scheme is identical to that which applies in the other territories occupied by the Russian armed forces. The uniformed forces enter, "pacify" the urban centres and push back the Ukrainian forces. They create a security perimeter around which they begin to work. The military occupy key positions in the cities and block the main roads. Specialised law enforcement reinforcements arrive and the transformation of the city begins. Food distribution, arrival of Russian television crews, etc...
The Kremlin's media apparatus plays an important role here. After these four months of war, news pieces from media outlets such as RT circulated in a loop, showing the "humanitarian" work of the Russian armed forces in the "liberated" territories. For example, a report by Russia Today shows how Russian military engineers are building houses in the occupied territories to house civilians who "have been left homeless by successive attacks by Ukrainian forces". The distribution of food to civilians is done with the same modus operandi. If there were no cameras to record it, it would not have happened.
What the Russian media do not show is shown by Vitaly through the videos and images he sends to his father Julius from Kherson. Brutal repression and insecurity on the streets. Private vehicles completely shot at. Military stripping civilians at roadblocks. Citizens wounded by bullets. Long queues at petrol stations and supermarkets and a total shortage of medicines in hospitals.
There is tension in Kherson between the Ukrainian majority and some citizens who see a good future in Russia. Harsh protests broke out on the streets of Kherson within weeks of the Russian occupation. Moscow's military responded with smoke canisters and gunfire to disperse the rallies. Instability took over the streets and even Voldimir Saldo himself took refuge in Crimea for a few days.
"While Saldo was not in Kherson, his driver and bodyguard were set up and killed," says Julio, who admits that some militias are trying to openly confront the occupation. The businessman, who spent so many years in Kherson and founded a family there, hopes that the violence between supporters of one side and the other will not escalate. He believes this opposition, and above all the pace of the war, prevents or at least delays Russia's annexation ambitions for the last city on the Dnieper River.
Analysts at the Institute for Study of the War do not share Julio's view. According to Lawlor and Clark's research, both protest movements and war in the rest of Ukraine's territory will not be enough to stop Russia's annexation plans. They believe that Russia has the resources to make Kherson and Zaporiyia its own, whether as an oblast, the regions that mainly divide Russia, a federal republic, the form Crimea took in Russia's interior, or even as a federal district, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
To fulfil its plan, Russia begins by adapting the terrain using the methods cited above by Julius, Vitaly and Maria. In addition to institutions, they mould the territory to the Russian format before preparing a referendum. "We are afraid that they will start bringing people from Crimea or Russia here in Kherson, to falsify the referendum result," Julio explains. "They are already doing that. Many businesses and houses that were left empty since the beginning of the war have been occupied by Russian citizens who have come from the east," says the Spanish businessman, who receives daily information from his son Vitaly. Subsequently, if the example of Crimea is followed, the Russian authorities force the population to adopt Russian citizenship and install de facto and almost completely the entire system of Russian state administration to the newly annexed territory.
The hypothetical accession of Ukrainian territories to Russia would, once formalised, albeit unilaterally by Russia, be a turning point. Analysts agree that once a territory is annexed by Russia, it is out of the question for Putin to drop the bone and step back. The retrocession of territory is totally unfeasible in this scenario, hence the danger of these developments. Not even by force of arms would it be possible. While in the offensive, Russian forces got bogged down for logistical reasons, the defence may be a much more favourable scenario for Russia. Crimea returning to Ukraine is not feasible and the hypothetical situation of Zaporiyia and Kherson would be similar.
There remains the question of costs and benefits for Russia in the move to annex more Ukrainian territories. According to Lawlor and Clark, the Minsk II agreements are the main condition on the game board. In case of annexing new territories, Moscow would lose the possibility of seeing the Lugansk and Donetsk autonomies flourish within the Ukrainian state and thus use both regions with their puppet governments to alter and maintain control over Ukraine's internal politics. The Minsk II framework is already weakened by the war and is an unlikely scenario for the future, given the difficulty of seeing a Russia-Ukraine agreement that builds on the foundations of 2014 prosper. It is therefore logical and likely that Putin will pursue the idea of annexing more territories.
On the other hand, the annexation of territories can be showcased by the Kremlin as a consequence and achievement of Russia's military campaign in Ukraine, something with which Putin can justify the war effort behind closed doors. It is also something with which he can carry more weight in potential dialogues with Kiev. Lawlor and Clark believe that, if Putin achieves annexations of Ukrainian territories, such a fait accompli would be a weight heavily in his favour.
Putin's success will be measured by his ability to achieve annexation goals before a hypothetical collapse of his armed forces, which can no longer withstand the weight of war. Ukraine is providing an ironclad defence of its positions, aided by Western powers that continue to send arms and economic aid to the Kiev government. The latest concessions of heavy weapons systems would, according to most analysts, allow Kiev to withstand and even hit Russia from behind its lines thanks to top-quality artillery provided by France or Germany.
The annexation issue thus becomes vital for the Kremlin. A time trial with Kiev, to win the war.