They handed out Russian passports, cell phone numbers and set-top boxes to watch Russian television. They have replaced the Ukrainian currency with the ruble, rerouted the internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds of people who resisted assimilation.
In big and small ways, the occupying authorities in the territory seized by the Moscow troops are using fear and indoctrination to force the Ukrainians to adopt a Russian way of life. “We are one people”, say blue-white-red billboards. “We are with Russia.”
Now comes the next act in President Vladimir V. Putin’s 21st-century version of a war of conquest: the popular referendum.
Russian-appointed administrators in cities like Kherson in southern Ukraine are preparing the vote as early as September, which the Kremlin will present as a popular desire in the region to join Russia. They recruit pro-Russian residents to new “election commissions” and promote Ukrainian citizens the perceived benefits of joining their country; they are even reportedly already printing the ballots.
Any referendum would be completely illegal, Ukrainian and Western officials say, but it would have dire consequences. Analysts in both Moscow and Ukraine expect it to serve as a prelude to Mr Putin’s official statement that the captured territory is Russian territory protected by Russian nuclear weapons, potentially making future attempts by Kiev to expel Russian troops much more expensive.
Annexation would also be Europe’s largest forcible territorial expansion since World War II, affecting an area several times the size of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Mr Putin took over in 2014.
The prospect of another annexation has also affected the military timetable, putting pressure on Kiev to attempt a risky counter-offensive sooner, rather than wait for the arrival of more Western long-range weapons that would increase its chances of success.
“Holding a referendum is not difficult at all,” Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of Russia’s Crimean parliament, said in a telephone interview this week. “They will ask, ‘Take us under your tutelage, under your development, under your safety.'”
Konstantinov, a longtime pro-Russian politician in Crimea, sat next to Putin in the Kremlin when the Russian president signed the document annexing the peninsula to Russia. He also helped organize the ‘referendum’ in Crimea, in which 97 percent voted to join Russia – a result that was rejected as a sham by the international community.
Our coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine
Now, Mr Konstantinov said, he is in constant contact with the Russian-imposed occupation authorities in the neighboring Kherson region, which were taken by Russian forces at the beginning of the war. He said authorities had told him a few days ago that they had started printing ballots, aiming to vote in September.
Kherson is one of four regions where officials are announcing plans for referendums, along with Zaporizhzhya in the south and Luhansk and Donetsk in the east. While the Kremlin claims it’s up to the residents of the area to “determine their own future,” Mr Putin hinted last month that he expected to annex the regions outright: he compared the war in Ukraine to Peter’s wars of conquest. Grote in the 18th century and said that, like the Russian Tsar, “it has fallen to us too to return” lost Russian territory.
At the same time, the Kremlin appears to be keeping its options open by offering few details. Aleksei Chesnakov, a political adviser in Moscow who has advised the Kremlin on Ukraine policy, said Moscow considered referendums on accession to Russia as its “baseline scenario”, although preparations for a possible vote had not yet been completed. He would not say whether he was involved in the trial.
“The referendum scenario appears realistic and will be a priority in the absence of signals from Kiev about readiness to negotiate a settlement,” Chesnakov said in a written response to questions. “The legal and political vacuum must of course be filled.”
As a result, a struggle to mobilize the inhabitants of the Russian-occupied territories for a referendum is becoming increasingly visible on the ground – portrayed as the initiative of local leaders.
The Russian-appointed authorities of the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, for example, announced this week that they would form “election commissions” to prepare for referendums, which one official says could take place on September 11 – a day when local and regional elections are held. which will be held throughout Russia.
The announcement invited residents to apply to the Election Commission by submitting a copy of the passport, education records and two ID-sized photos.
Officials are guiding preparations for a vote with an intensified propaganda campaign, preparing both residents of the area and the domestic public in Russia for an impending annexation. A new pro-Russian newspaper in the Zaporizhzhya region last week ran its second issue with the headline: “The referendum will be!” In last Sunday’s weekly news show on Russian state television, a report promised that “everything is being done to ensure that Kherson returns to his historic homeland as soon as possible”.
“Russia is starting to roll out a version of what you might call an annexation roadmap,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said this month, comparing referendum preparations with the Kremlin’s moves in 2014 to try to justify his position. annexation of Crimea. “Annexation by force will be a gross violation of the UN Charter and we will not allow it to go unchallenged or unpunished.”
In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, officials say any referendum on merging with Russia or forming a Russian puppet state in occupied territories would be illegal, fraught with fraud and would do nothing to legitimize land seizures.
For Ukrainian citizens, the occupation was accompanied by numerous hardships, including shortages of cash and medicines – a situation the Russians are trying to exploit to win the loyalty of the local population by distributing ‘humanitarian aid’.
Those seeking a sense of normalcy are incentivized to apply for a Russian passport, which is now required for things like registering a motor vehicle or certain types of businesses; newborns and orphans are automatically registered as Russian citizens.
“There is no money in Kherson, there is no work in Kherson,” said Andrei, 33, who worked in the service department of a car dealership in the city before the war. In early July, he left his home in the city with his wife and small child and moved to western Ukraine.
“Kherson has returned to the 1990s when only vodka, beer and cigarettes were for sale,” he said.
After taking control of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions, Russian forces sought out pro-Kremlin Ukrainian officials and installed them in government positions.
At the same time, they conducted an ongoing campaign to quell dissent, including kidnapping, torturing and executing political and cultural leaders deemed a threat, according to witnesses interviewed by The New York Times, Western and Ukrainian officials, and independent humanitarians. groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Russian occupiers have cut off access to Ukrainian mobile services and restricted the availability of YouTube and a popular messaging app, Viber. They introduced the ruble and began to change the school curriculum to Russian – which is trying to indoctrinate more and more children with Mr. Putin’s worldview.
A top 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 show called “Kherson and Zaporizhzhia 24”, and set-top boxes providing access. to the Russian airwaves were distributed for free — or even delivered to residents who can’t pick them up in person.
In an interview late last month, Ihor Kolykhaiev, the mayor of the city of Kherson since 2020, said that Russian propaganda, combined with the feeling of being abandoned by the Kiev government, has slowly succeeded in changing the perception of some residents who stayed behind — mainly retirees and those on low incomes.
“I think something is changing in relationships, probably in people’s habits,” he said, estimating that 5 to 10 percent of his constituents had changed their mind because of the propaganda.
“This is an irreversible process that will take place in the future,” he added. “And I’m really concerned about that. Then it is almost impossible to recover it.”
mr. Kolykhaiev spoke in a video interview from a makeshift office in Kherson. Days later, his assistant announced that he had been kidnapped by the pro-Russian occupier. Nothing was heard from him on Friday.
Mr Putin has referred to Kherson and other parts of southeastern Ukraine as Novorossiya, or New Russia — the name of the region after it was conquered by Catherine the Great in the 18th century and became part of the Russian Empire. In recent years, the region’s nostalgia for the Soviet past and the skepticism of the pro-Western government in Kiev continued to perpetuate older generations, even as the region was forging a new Ukrainian identity.
But early in the occupation this spring, Kherson residents repeatedly gathered for large, vociferous protests to challenge Russian troops, even provoking gunfire in response. This open confrontation has largely ended, according to a 30-year-old Kherson lifelong resident, Ivan, who remains in the city and asked to remember his last name due to the risk of speaking out in public.
“As soon as there is a large group of people, soldiers immediately appear,” he says by telephone. “It’s really life-threatening right now.”
Residents say there are still signs of resistance.
“Our people go out at night and paint Ukrainian flags,” said another man, Andrei. “In yellow and blue letters they paint: ‘We believe in the Ukrainian armed forces.'”
Andrew E. Kramer and Alina Lobzina reporting contributed.