Putin has managed to grab hold of the separatist regions of the Ukraine which hold the majority of the mineral and energy assets. In the process he's also managed to almost double the price of oil he exports.
Sadly, NATO is learning the hard way that Leo Durocher had it right, "nice guys finish last".
Russia’s Occupation of Southern Ukraine Hardens, With Rubles, Russian Schools and Lenin Statues
Fearing conscription by Russia, Ukrainian men escape occupied areas with their families. ‘We are like aliens in the cities where we were born.’
By Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—Every day, convoys of cars and minivans trickle to a processing center on the edge of Zaporizhzhia, packed with civilians fleeing the areas of southern Ukraine under Russian occupation while they still can.
A swath of southern Ukraine, including almost all of its Kherson region and the majority of its Zaporizhzhia region, have been under Russian military rule since early March.
Russian occupation authorities are swiftly integrating these areas into Russia, appointing collaborationist administrations and introducing Russian documents, education programs and currency. On Saturday, Russian authorities disconnected most of the occupied areas in southern Ukraine from Ukrainian cellphone service and internet providers by cutting fiber-optic cables and turning off power at base stations so as to hide “truthful information about the course of the war,” the Ukrainian government said.
The biggest fear, especially among men, in areas under Russian control is that they will soon be forcibly drafted to fight other Ukrainians. That happened earlier this year to men up to the age of 65 in the parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that Moscow has controlled since 2014.
“If they conscript you, and your family is left behind as hostages, what can you do? This was one of the main reasons why we got out,” said Mykola Murashko, 46, who drove to Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday with his wife and children from the Russian-occupied town of Vasylivka.
Russian soldiers at the checkpoint were turning around people who admitted that they were heading to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzia city, he said. Mr. Murashko told them he was driving on business to another Russian-held village near the front-line. “Every morning for weeks, I kept waking up with the thought: let’s try to leave,” he said. “And today, we have made it.”
Displaced people from Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine.
An elderly woman arrives at the reception point in Zaporizhzhia.
Russian occupation authorities in southern Ukraine so far haven’t announced mobilization plans. But, signaling a comeback to Soviet-style totalitarian rule, they have started returning to central squares the monuments to Lenin that were dismantled by Kyiv after 2014. They have also removed and repainted Ukrainian symbols, flying Soviet flags alongside the Russian banner on public buildings.
“The pressure on people has become systemic in recent weeks,” said the Ukrainian governor of Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh. “It really is like the Soviet Union is back over there, and people are forced to live in fear.”
Even though no agreed evacuation routes exist and people trying to escape have to brave shelling and crossfire, some 150,000 residents of the occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia region moved to Kyiv-controlled parts of Ukraine since the war began Feb. 24, out of an estimated prewar population of 700,000, Gov. Starukh said. An additional 100,000 people have fled via Zaporizhzhia from the devastated city of Mariupol, which is part of the nearby Donetsk region, he said.
Signs of Russia consolidating its rule are everywhere. Russian rubles became legal tender in the biggest Russian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, Melitopol, on Sunday, according to the Russian-appointed caretaker mayor there. The city-run wedding hall of the port city of Berdyansk, also in Zaporizhzhia region, has begun issuing newlyweds with Russian Federation wedding certificates.
The message from Moscow is that the occupied areas of southern Ukraine, which form a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, will remain under Russian control forever.
“It’s out of the question to return the Kherson region back to Nazi Ukraine…. Kyiv will no longer be able to force its ugly Nazi policies upon our land,” the Russian-appointed deputy head of the military-civil administration of Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, told Russia’s state news agency RIA on Thursday.
In a recent appearance on Russian state TV, Mr. Stremousov, a blogger originally from Donetsk region best known before the war for campaigning against Covid-19 vaccines, acknowledged that many residents of Kherson still expect the Ukrainian state to return—and therefore refrain from collaborating with his administration.
Peaceful pro-Ukrainian protests in Kherson and other occupied cities, a frequent occurrence in March, have fizzled out in recent weeks. “At first, the Russian intelligence services allowed these protests so they could see the structure of activist networks,” said Gov. Starukh. “But then, they detained the real organizers—either to beat them up, or to pressure them to leave to Ukrainian-controlled territory.”
Some pro-Ukrainian activists have been forced to go on Russian-controlled TV in occupied areas to repent for having participated in protests, and to call for collaborating with Russian authorities. Those who did so were released. Hundreds of others remain in detention.
“Every night when you go to bed, you expect they will come to pick you up. People who don’t live in occupied territories can’t understand how it is,” said a business owner from the town of Tokmak, Vitaliy, who crossed into Zaporizhzhia city so that his family could leave the region.
Toys for displaced children at the reception point in Zaporizhzhia.
In the city of Enerhodar, part of the Zaporizhzhia region, occupation authorities are going door-to-door trying force business owners to reopen stores, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs, said a local businessman, Ivan. “They detain everyone who has money and keep them in their basements,” he said. “I know I’ve lost my business anyway, so I am not going to reopen for them.”
With the Russian crackdown making peaceful protests impossible, armed struggle behind Russian lines shows signs of emerging.
On Thursday, a major railway bridge on the line connecting Melitopol and Russian front-line positions to supply bases in Crimea was destroyed, in an operation claimed by Ukrainian special-operations forces. A handful of residents of southern Ukraine known to have collaborated with Russian forces were gunned down in recent weeks by unknown assailants, according to Ukrainian officials and local residents.
Almost all the elected mayors in occupied towns and villages of southern Ukraine have been replaced with Russian military appointees. The mayor of Kherson, Ihor Kolykhaev, was the last elected official to be removed, replaced on April 25 by a collaborationist member of the municipal council.
The Russians that day also named a former mayor of Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, who served as a Ukrainian parliament member from the pro-Russian Party of Regions until 2014, as the head of the regional military-civilian administration. After the appointment, Mr. Saldo said that Russian-language schools would return, as will the system of education “that has been perfected in Soviet times.”
For both sides, education is a critical battleground. In Zaporizhzhia region, Ukrainian authorities have ordered the early closure of schools from May 2. Russian forces are trying to reopen schools as part of Moscow’s project to “re-educate” the residents of Ukraine and eliminate patriotic sentiment.
Serhiy Oleksienko and his wife Tetiana, both schoolteachers, show the keys to their house.
Missing persons posters in Zaporizhzhia.
For Serhiy Oleksienko, a geography teacher, and his wife Tetiana, a primary schoolteacher, that pressure prompted them to pack all their belongings into a small trailer and leave their home in the Chernihivka district of the Zaporizhzhia region on Saturday.
“We had hoped we could hold out, but the psychological pressure is too much. We didn’t wait around to be forced to teach in Russian,” said Mr. Oleksienko.
A total of nine of Mr. Oleksienko school’s 16 teachers have also escaped to areas under Ukrainian control, he said. Their hometown, like others in southern Ukraine, has its share of pro-Russian collaborators, including the district director of education who is now working with the Russian authorities, Mr. Oleksienko said.
At the processing center outside a shopping mall in Zaporizhzhia, arrivals like Mr. Oleksienko are briefly questioned by police officers, who take photos of documents with cellphones and run names through databases. Investigators go from car to car to gather any evidence on Ukrainian officials collaborating with Russian occupation authorities. Under recently amended Ukrainian law, these collaborators face 15 years in prison. Those found guilty of treason can be sentenced to life imprisonment. Ukraine doesn’t have the death penalty.
On Friday, as Ukrainian policemen examined the passport of Zakhid, a native of Azerbaijan residing in the occupied town of Kakhovka, his wife Zemfira couldn’t hide her relief. Their journey to government-controlled Ukraine had taken two days, she said, with a night spent in a church in Tokmak and a close call when drunk Russian soldiers tried to confiscate their battered car. She left her bedridden father behind.
Civilians moving around Kakhovka must wear white armbands, the local shops are running out of food, and the pharmacies no longer have most medication, Zemfira said.
“We are like aliens in the city where we were born. We look at these Russian flags everywhere, at those white armbands. The Russians tell us there is no more Ukraine. How can it be?” she shook her head. “This morning, at the crossing, when we saw our Ukrainian flag for the first time, we just couldn’t help crying.”
Ukrainians from the city of Dniprorudne arrive in Zaporizhzhia.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov