• Elise Thomas

Briefing: How Russia is consolidating power in Kherson


Image Source: AP via Washington Times.


In newly occupied cities across Ukraine, the Kremlin is rapidly consolidating its power. Russia controls the lives of civilians and the economy. Pro-Russian authorities in the occupied cities are expected to hold ‘referendums’ on joining Russia in the near future. This may be as soon as July, although as of June 3rd no exact date has been announced.

However, the pro-Russian authorities evidently have no intention of waiting to see the outcome of the ‘referendums’ before taking a range of practical steps towards Russian integration (presumably because the outcome is predetermined).


Kherson’s recently installed pro-Russian leadership in particular are moving at lightning speed, in what some reporting suggests is part of a plan to use Kherson as a ‘laboratory’ for integration of other Ukrainian cities.


Collaboration between pro-Russian authorities and groups in Kherson and Crimea is playing a key role in this. It appears that at least to some extent, Crimea’s example of integration into Russia is being used as a blueprint for Kherson. The United Russia Party also appears to be playing a particularly active role.


This briefing provides a snapshot of some of the key steps Kherson’s pro-Russian leadership has announced in late May and early June 2022 to consolidate integration with Russia and deepen Russian control over the lives of their citizens. It is important to note that there is of course a difference between measures being announced and measures being enacted effectively.


This briefing will focus on measures and actions which have been announced, as a reflection of the intent of Russian and pro-Russian local authorities. A more in-depth report would be needed to assess how effectively the measures are being put into practice on the ground.


Identity

  • Citizenship and Passports: On May 25th Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to fast-track passport and citizenship applications for residents from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Pro-Russian propaganda Telegram channels post regularly about how many people in Kherson have allegedly applied and encourage others to come forward. On June 16th, it was announced that all babies born in Kherson since February 24th would automatically receive Russian citizenship.


Figure 1: Screenshot of post from Russian propaganda Telegram channel showing a clip from Crimea24 TV discussing the extension of Russian citizenship to babies born in Kherson since February 24th.


  • Language: On May 23rd Kherson’s pro-Russian deputy leader Kirill Stremousov announced that Russian would become the official language. Ukrainian language will not be banned, but official business, education and “all issues of national importance” will be conducted in Russian by default.

  • Timezone: On May 28th Stremousov announced that Kherson would be moving to the Moscow timezone (Zaporizhzhia has also moved to the Moscow timezone.


Money and Banking


  • Currency: As of May 25th a dual currency zone has been established in Kherson, with all business required to accept payments in roubles as well as hryvnia. The currency exchange rate has been fixed at 2 rubles to 1 hryvnia.


  • Banking: It has been announced that the International Settlements Bank, a bank registered in South Ossetia which has allegedly been used to funnel money from Russia to the DNR and LNR, will begin operating in Kherson. It is not clear whether it is yet in operation in the region, however. The pro-Russian authorities have also said Russian banks will operate in Kherson soon, but as of June 3rd, none appear to be in operation yet. It appears that at least as of May 30th, there is still some access to Ukrainian banks (for example PrivatBank) but cash supplies are in serious shortage. For Ukrainian authorities, it appears there are significant challenges in delivering pension payments to those in occupied territories.


  • Debt: On June 13th Stremousov announced that the debts of Kherson residents to Ukrainian banks and utility companies will be “written off.” It is unclear that Stremousov has any power to write off debts owed to Ukrainian companies, so this may be an opportunistic announcement reflecting the reality that Ukrainian banks currently have no ability to enforce repayments or debt collection in Kherson.




Figure 2: Screenshot of post in pro-Russian Telegram channel announcing that debts to Ukrainian banks and utility companies will be “written off.”


Media and Communications


Background context: Communication channels in Kherson have been repeatedly cut off and restored as fighting in the region continues. Russian and Ukrainian authorities have consistently blamed each other for these disruptions. This occurred again on May 31st, with the Russians and Ukrainians accusing each other of deliberately cutting off communications to occupied territories.


Lack of internet access is a very significant problem not only for communication but for using payment cards. This could have a direct impact on economic survival for citizens, especially given the apparent shortages of cash.


  • Internet: A Crimean internet provider has been active in Kherson since May 7th according to Kirill Stremousov. On May 21st, Russian State Duma Deputy and United Russia member Igor Kastyukevich told Russian state media that a fibre-optic cable had been extended from Crimea to Kherson. On May 31st, Stremousov responded to the alleged Ukrainian attack on communications infrastructure in Kherson by publicly appealing to Russian telecommunications companies for assistance in reconnecting the region. As of June 3rd internet access had not been restored, but authorities expected that it would be in “coming days.”


  • Russian SIM cards: Pro-Russian authorities announced on May 27th that Kherson (along with several other occupied regions) will be switching to Russian phone networks and the +7 Russian phone code. Russian SIM cards are now available in Kherson. The network which is claimed to be operating in the region is the Crimean-based Win Mobile. A second Russian network is expected to launch in early July.


Figure 3: Screenshot of a post in Sputnik’s English language Telegram channel, reporting that Crimea’s Win Mobile will operate in Kherson.


Security


  • Policing: As of at least May 18th, pro-Russian authorities have begun establishing a new police force and recruiting for officers. This is in addition to the already established pro-Russian Kherson Ministry of Internal Affairs.



Figure 4: Screenshot of post in the Telegram channel of the pro-Russian administration in Kherson, showing a Russian flag being mounted on the police station.


The former head of the Kherson city police department Valentin Gladkiiy was reportedly taken by the Russian military on May 21st after giving an interview to the BBC about Kherson’s opposition to the Russian occupation. On the same day a new head of Kherson Police was announced. On May 27th Gladkiiy reappeared to be shown in an interview on Russian media which alleged that he was paid $10,000 by the BBC journalists to lie about hostility in Kherson towards the Russian occupiers.


Kherson’s new police chief Vladimir Lipandin is the former head of the Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Cherkasy. He “personally led” his team to put down Maidan protests in 2014, which resulted in him being put on a wanted list by Ukrainian authorities after the revolution. He has since been based in Crimea.


It is not immediately clear whether Kherson’s new police force will be enforcing Russian or Ukrainian law. A Telegram post by the pro-Russian administration in Kherson on June 14th stated that while the formation of the police force was ongoing, the Russian Army and units of the National Guard were continuing to help police in “ensuring law and order.”



Figure 5: Screenshot of post in pro-Russian administration’s Telegram channel, stating that the formation of the police force is ongoing and that Russian forces continue to ensure law and order.



  • Kherson Ministry of Internal Affairs: The Kherson Ministry of Internal Affairs was established prior to recent weeks and won’t be included in detail in this briefing. However, as of June 2nd the Ministry appears to be recruiting for “explosives technicians, sappers, as well as residents of Kherson and the region with higher education: chemical, biological, legal or in the field of digital and computer technologies.”


Figure 6: Screenshot of Telegram post announcing recruiting for the Kherson Ministry of Internal Affairs.


The Ministry of Internal Affairs has also been seeking to disarm the local civilian population, calling on locals to hand over their weapons voluntarily or face imprisonment.



Figure 7: Screenshot of post from the Kherson Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Telegram channel, encouraging residents to hand over firearms and reminding them that illegal possession of firearms is punishable by imprisonment.


Education


  • Schooling in Kherson: Earlier, on May 10th, pro-Russian authorities in Kherson attempted to impose “Russian standards” on schools in Kherson. In compliance with the new language law, education must now also take place primarily in Russian rather than Ukrainian. This has met with resistance from local teachers, many of whom have reportedly continued to teach according to the Ukrainian curriculum. Some educational institutions, such as the Kherson National Technical University, have entirely relocated to areas under Ukrainian government control. Authorities have suggested bringing in “volunteer teachers” from Crimea.


According to reporting, on May 26th the pro-Russian authorities attempted to hold a meeting of 71 educational institutions in Kherson. 20 people attended, 14 of whom later got up and left. Two claimed to have been brought to the meeting at gunpoint. Notably, a post in the pro-Russian authorities’ main Telegram channel about the meeting featured a cartoon graphic rather than photographs of the meeting.


On May 30th, pro-Russian authorities announced a plan to re-open all schools in Kherson by September 1st. 20,000 teachers from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are reportedly expected to be sent for retraining in Crimea to enable this to happen. It appears likely that teachers in Kherson who continue to resist will face increasing pressure or coercion to comply. Stremousov has stated that those who ‘sabotage local work’ will be punished.



Figure 8: Screenshot of post from Russian propaganda Telegram channel showing clip from Crimea24 TV reporting on Stremousov’s comments that civil servants who do not cooperate with the pro-Russian administration will be punished.


Schooling in Crimea: Although reliable numbers are difficult to establish, some children appear to be being sent from Kherson to Crimea for school. This appears to be taking place under the same simplified process by which Crimea is encouraging children from other occupied areas to enrol in Crimean schools.


Trade and Economic Integration


Background context: This is an area in which announcements and public statements may be particularly likely to be at odds with reality, for multiple reasons. Russians and their supporters have an incentive to overstate the degree of trade and economic opportunity that Kherson and the occupied territories more broadly will bring to Russia (in order to persuade domestic audiences in Russia why they should welcome the integration of the occupied territories). Local farmers and producers may have an incentive to keep their involvement in any sales or export activity as quiet as possible, out of fear that they will gain a reputation amongst their own communities for being a Russian collaborator. Customers outside of Crimea may not wish to publicise that they are buying products from Ukraine for fear of facing reputational or sanctions implications. Supporters of Ukraine may also have a motive to inflate the amount of trade to spark outrage from their domestic and international audiences. For all of these reasons, all statements about trade in the occupied territories should be taken with an extra-large pinch of salt.


  • Kherson-Crimea: Two-way trade has been taking place to some degree between Kherson and Crimea for several months. Exports from Kherson to date seem to have been largely crops and other agricultural products. This appears to include wheat exports. According to the Ukrainian side this trade amounts to tens of thousands of tonnes. Some of these products appear to be being sold in Crimea, but much of it may be being sold on into secondary markets.


On the Crimean side, there are no restrictions on exports to Kherson except for cereals and fertilisers. Efforts to deepen business and trade ties between the two regions are ongoing; for example, a section in the recent “Business Crimea” forum for attendees from Kherson.


The flow of food from Kherson is clearly a key plank of Russia’s propaganda to its domestic audiences about why they should welcome the integration of the occupied territories (to the extent that some of it may be being faked, according to reporting).


In the example below, an official claims that the prices of fruit and vegetables in Crimea have been halved because of imports from Kherson, and says “This may be the best answer to all the doubters to the question, what will the Kherson region give to Russia.”



Figure 9: Screenshot of Telegram post promoting the value which Kherson will bring to Russia.



  • Kherson-Russia: As of May 30th, grain from last year’s harvest has begun to be exported to Russia according to Stremousov. Russian sources claim that ports in Berdyansk, Mariupol and Kherson are now operational (although the Kherson Commercial Sea Port is only in a limited capacity as of June 15th) and ready to begin shipping goods and produce. Notably, this could also enable export into other secondary markets, such as Turkey.


  • Occupied territories: At a forum on May 25th titled “Entrepreneurship in the New Economic Reality”, Russian political leaders floated the idea of creating a special economic zone for the better integration of the occupied Ukrainian territories into the Russian economy. As yet it is not clear exactly what form this would take.

Discussion


Pro-Russian authorities in Kherson have been very clear about their intentions to hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation – and equally clear that they don’t intend to wait for the result before beginning that integration. On June 14th Stremousov was quoted in Russian media as saying that Kherson is, at least in spirit, already a Russian region and always has been.


The pace of announced changes is frenetic. It is unlikely that even a well-organised and highly capable local government would be able to implement them effectively in such a short space of time. It is not apparent that the pro-Russian administration in Kherson is either well-organised or highly capable, and thus it may well be that many of their announcements exist more on paper than in practice.


The announcements are nonetheless significant as a reflection of intent. Kherson appears to be being used as something of a test case for how Russia intends to integrate the occupied territories into its own national and economic structures. The success or failure of Russian officials and Kherson’s pro-Russian leaders first to architect and then implement the integration of Kherson will have profound implications for the local population, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the broader geopolitical landscape. It is therefore important to continue to monitor the situation in Kherson as it develops.

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