When Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine in late February, the Russian president vowed that his troops would not occupy the neighboring country. But as the invasion reached its centenary on Friday, it seemed increasingly unlikely that Russia would relinquish territory it had taken in the war.
The ruble is now an official currency in the southern Kherson region, alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia. Residents there and in Russian-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhya region are being offered Russian passports. The Kremlin-installed governments in both regions have discussed plans to join Russia.
The Moscow-backed leaders of separatist areas in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which largely speaks Russian, have similar intentions. Putin recognized the self-declared republics of the separatists as independent states two days before the invasion. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has intensified as Russia seeks to “liberate” all of Donbas.
The Kremlin has largely kept quiet about its plans for the cities and towns it rocketed, surrounded and eventually captured.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russian troops have succeeded in their main declared task of protecting civilians in separatist-controlled areas. He added that Russian forces have “liberated” parts of Ukraine and “this work will continue until all the goals of the special military operation are achieved.”
In a video message marking the first 100 days of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy indicated that his country would not readily submit to Russian aggression after showing it could withstand months of attacks from a larger adversary.
“We have defended Ukraine for 100 days. The victory will be ours,” he said
Annexing more land from Ukraine was never the main aim of the invasion, but Moscow is unlikely to relinquish its military gains, political analysts say.
“Of course Russia intends to stay,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For Russia, it is “a pity to give away what is occupied, even if it was not part of the original plan.”
Putin has described the goals of the invasion somewhat vaguely, saying it aimed at the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. It was widely believed that the Kremlin initially intended to install a pro-Moscow government in Kiev and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and taking other steps outside Russia’s sphere of influence.
Russia captured much of Kherson and neighboring Zaporizhia early in the war, gained control of most of the coast of the Sea of Azov in Ukraine, and established a partial land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia entered in 2014. annexed from Ukraine.
There was hardly a warm welcome from the locals. Residents of the cities of Kherson and Melitopol took to the streets to protest against the occupation, facing Russian soldiers in squares. Ukrainian officials warned that Russia would hold a referendum in Kherson to declare the region an independent state.
They installed people with pro-Kremlin views to replace mayors and other local leaders who had disappeared in what Ukrainian officials and media said were kidnappings. Russian flags were hoisted Russian state broadcasts promoting the Kremlin version of the invasion supplanted Ukrainian TV channels.
The Russian ruble was introduced this month as the second official currency in both the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions — at least in the parts under Russian control — and pro-Russian governments began offering a “one-time social payment” of 10,000 rubles (about $163) to local residents.
Top Russian officials began exploring the regions, praising the territories’ prospects of being integrated into Russia. Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin visited Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in mid-May and indicated that they could become part of ‘our Russian family’.
A senior official of the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, said it even more bluntly in a meeting with Kherson residents: “Russia is here forever.”
Members of the pro-Kremlin administrations in both regions soon announced that the areas would be incorporated into Russia. While it remains unclear when or if it will happen, Russia is laying the groundwork.
An office of the Russian Migration Services was opened in Melitopol, where applications for Russian citizenship were processed in an expedited procedure. Putin expanded to residents of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions. The rapid procedure was first implemented in 2019 in the rebel-controlled areas of the Donbas, where more than 700,000 people have been given Russian passports.
Oleg Kryuchkov, an official in Russia-annexed Crimea, said this week that the two southern regions have switched to Russian Internet service providers; state media showed images of people queuing to get Russian SIM cards for their cell phones. Kryuchkov also said that both regions switched to the Russian country code, +7, from Ukraine’s +380.
High-ranking Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, a member of Russia’s delegation in stalled peace talks with Ukraine, said referendums on accession to Russia could take place in the regions of Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya as early as July.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov was evasive when asked Friday whether Russian authorities planned to vote in those areas, saying it would depend on the course of the Russian offensive. He and other Russian officials have repeatedly said it is up to local residents to determine their future status.
Tatyana Stanovaya, founder and CEO of R. Politik, an independent think tank on Russian politics, thinks Putin doesn’t want to rush referendums and risk being labeled a sham.
“He wants the referendum to be real so the West can see that Russia was indeed right, the people want to coexist with Russia,” Stanovaya said.
Ukrainian experts say it will not be easy for the Kremlin to gain genuine support in southern Ukraine.
Volodymyr Fesenko, of the think tank Penta Center in Kiev, said residents of southern regions identify much more strongly as Ukrainians than people in areas closer to Russia or who have been led for eight years by the Moscow-backed separatists.
“We already see that the occupying Russian government is forced to tighten the screws and intensify repression in the southern regions because it cannot effectively control protest sentiment,” Fesenko said. “And this is causing a new wave of discontent among the population, who only received Russian SIM cards and high Russian prices.”
Local residents echoed Fesenko’s sentiment.
Petro Kobernyk, 31, an activist with a non-governmental organization who fled Kherson with his wife, said Russian repression began in the early days of the occupation.
“Hundreds of pro-Ukrainian activists, including my friends, are being held in the basements of security forces,” Kobernyk said on the phone. “Those who actively express their views are being kidnapped and tortured, threatened and driven from the region.”
His claims could not be independently verified. Russian forces are keeping people in an “information vacuum,” with Ukrainian websites no longer available, Kobernyk said.
He described a bleak life in Kherson. With many shops closed, the city has “turned into an endless market where people exchange goods for medicine and food.”
But some in Ukraine have welcomed Russia’s actions.
Vadim Romanova, a 17-year-old from the ruined port city of Mariupol, said one of his dreams has come true.
“I’ve wanted to live in Russia since I was little, and now I realize I don’t even have to move anywhere,” he said.
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