On March 12, Sergey Khlan, a deputy with the Kherson Regional Council, announced in a post on a social networking site that the Russians who partially occupied the city, as well as the Kherson Oblast, tried to organize a referendum in order to create a new separatist republic – the so-called People’s Republic of Kherson. The Ukrainian official claimed local leaders were contacted and subjected to pressure in order to make the process smoother. The action has been confirmed by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba. Before long, the regional Prosecutor’s Office announced it has launched a criminal investigation into the organization of an illegal referendum. On March 13, the Hromadske publication announced that deputy Galina Danilchenko, whom the Russians had appointed “interim mayor” of Melitopol, shortly after the kidnapping of the incumbent mayor, Ivan Fedorov, informed the local population that Russian TV stations will soon start broadcasting to the region. Fedorov was kidnapped and held hostage several days for refusing to pay homage to the Russian troops that entered the city. Subsequently, Ivan Fedorov was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Russia wants to breathe new life into the Novorossiya project by creating new separatist republics in Ukraine
Kherson is a port city on the Dnieper, as well as an important communication hub, both due to its strategic location, providing access to the Black Sea and to Mykolaiv, as well as in terms of trading, as the city is an important link to the Crimean Peninsula. In early March, 2022, after the invasion of Ukraine had started, Russian troops moved inland and managed to seize control of most of the city. Still, the local population continues to resist any attempt to install a pro-Russian administration, and is constantly challenging the illegal occupation. The actions of the civilian population in Kherson has turned them into a role model for other towns and villages currently under siege.
Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center, pointed out in a post that referred to president Vladimir Putin’s March 18 speech, that Russia’s current actions contradict the promises it made eight years ago, when it annexed Crimea. At the time, Vladimir Putin publicly claimed that the annexation of the peninsula was a singular case, “a historic act of justice”, and that no other similar actions would follow. Eight years later, Moscow invoked “the will of the people” in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, who allegedly felt threatened by Kyiv leaders and had to be protected by means of an organized genocide. Moreover, the Russian side claims to have provided Ukraine with sufficient time to reconsider the implementation of the Minsk Protocols. Naturally, Putin failed to mention that Russia’s protection was turned down, even at gunpoint, including in Kherson.
The Kherson Oblast is part of the Novorossiya confederation, which also includes Donbas and other provinces that offer access to the northern Black Sea and provide connections to Odessa. The project became an important element in the discourse of Russian officials, but also for the separatists in Donbas, as early as spring, 2014. The latter went even further, and in 2014 announced their merger as part of the so-called Union of the People’s Republics of DNR and LNR. The idea failed to rally enough support, so starting 2015 the Union (which was designed as a confederation) stopped being promoted altogether. Still, as a project, Novorossiya was referenced every now and then in official addresses with a view to pressuring Ukrainian leaders and those of Ukraine’s partners, or in order to put public opinion and sentiment to the test. Right now, Novorossiya is used by experts to explain the field strategies of Russian military, who tried to create a connection between the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and those in the Black Sea, including by taking control of the Odessa Oblast.
Russia’s strategy to create new separatist republics in Ukraine continues to be fostered despite its limited success. The model is quite straightforward: organize an illegal referendum, then organize a series of actions aimed at legitimizing the leadership of the separatist republics. The strategy was used in Crimea, the peninsula annexed on March 18, 2014, as well as in Luhansk and Donetsk – the other two separatist republics under Russia’s de facto control, which it used starting 2014 to influence and undermine decision-making processes in Kyiv. In February, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed the decree recognizing the independence of the two breakaway regions, and subsequently used them to partially justify the “special military operation” in Ukraine, a country that deliberately “sabotaged” (Russia argues) the implementation of the Minsk Protocols and organized a “genocide” against the population of these regions. It was a partial justification, as Moscow stated its objective was to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine. Putin expected Ukrainians would acknowledge and applaud his actions, or at least this is what he led everyone to believe. On the ground, however, Moscow’s plans were foiled by the resistance of the population, including Russian speakers.
Alternatives to the separatist republics: local leaders of the suspended opposition
According to data made public by the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, the creation of separatist republics is not the only instrument the Russians are using to impose their rule with a view of breaking the ranks of those who still support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Therefore, the Russian Federation leaders are also considering the enforcement of illegal local authorities in the temporarily occupied territories. To achieve this goal, the Federation will select the employees of the power structures, prosecutor’s offices and courts of law, who are already in Ukraine or will duly be sent there. The move fits a carefully constructed design: to penetrate local communities and undermine vigilance from inside the besieged towns. Moreover, the leaders of pro-Russian parties, whose activity is temporarily suspended, are also invited to get invovled. One such example is the town of Enerhodar, where a member of the Opposition Platform – For Life, Andrei Shevchik, announced on March 27 the creation of a “town council” and proclaimed himself its leader. Of course, the decision was illegal and is not expected to produce any legal effects. Moreover, it can be considered an act against the Ukrainian state, namely treason.
On the ground, however, the identification and promotion of such leaders remain largely unsuccessful for Russia, which hoped to obtain remarkable results in large cities with a majority Russian-speaking population. Russian authorities are confronted with staunch resistance from the local population, who continues to create difficulties, thus delaying Russia’s military operations. In the city of Melitopol, which is also temporarily occupied, the heads of schooling units have submitted their resignation and refused to cooperate with the occupation forces. In this context, the question arises: what kind of human and administrative resources is Russia willing to bring to Ukraine in order to secure the loyalty of the local population? If the answer presents itself, then we should also answer another question: what will Russia do if these separatist republics want to give up their independence?
Separatist republics refuse to stay “independent”
Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the Luhansk separatist republic, announced on March 27, 20222, that he might soon organize a referendum on accession to the Russian Federation. The idea has not been ruled out by Moscow authorities. As a matter of fact, Andrey Klishas, the chair of the Federation Council Committee on constitutional legislation and state construction, virtually encouraged Klishas’s initiative in a post on social media, claiming the two separatist republics are free to decide their own future.
The impact of such initiatives is felt outside Ukraine as well. Separatist officials in the Georgian province of South Ossetia have also made public their intentions, claiming they are ready to organize a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, the ITAR-TASS news agency reports. According to the publication, which quotes the so-called speaker of the separatist parliament, Alan Tadtaev, the referendum is expected to be held shortly because it reflects the will of the people. The necessary steps to organize the referendum might be finalized by April 10. The swift progression of this scenario has a pragmatic explanation that has to do with improving the efficiency of public spending, as the referendum is expected to be held concurrently with the illegal presidential election in South Ossetia. If we look at the broader region, we will notice that the illegitimate regime in Tiraspol is less audacious, and merely wants its independence to be recognized, without advancing any other claims. In 2008, when it recognized the independence of the two Georgian breakaway regions, Tiraspol did not obtain a similar result for itself, despite its insistence. For Moscow, recognizing the independence of Transnistria might result in losing control over the Republic of Moldova.
So far, its intrusion in Ukraine has brought Moscow nothing but economic sanctions, isolation at international level, while rallying the West against its acts of aggression. The hypothetical loyalty of local leaders, installed either with force, blackmail or the promise of positions in the local administration, does not seem a viable alternative for Moscow to further engage in military operations inside Ukraine. Naturally, the Russians will never admit it, since they miscalculated the enthusiastic response of the local population, although it does offer Ukraine additional opportunities to identify internal threats to its national security: the leaders of pro-Russian parties and local leaders, who contributed to these illegal actions.