With Russian troops failing to achieve major military successes elsewhere in Ukraine, state propaganda is focusing on keeping hold of the captured territories of southern Ukraine, including the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. These territories are important to Russia both in terms of creating a land corridor from Crimea to the Donbas, and in terms of control over the North Crimean Canal, which supplies water to the peninsula.

Russia has two tried-and-tested scenarios for consolidating and retaining control over Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The first is the Donbas scenario: a referendum to establish a “Kherson People’s Republic.” The second is annexation, either by direct presidential decree or by holding a Crimea-style referendum.

The first scenario would enable Russia to create a buffer zone of its protectorates, including the Donbas “republics,” but it wouldn’t make for the strongest propaganda: the pro-Russian separatist enclaves in the Donbas have remained unrecognized for eight years—including by Russia itself.

The second scenario looks better in terms of optics, feeding into the myth of the return of Russian lands. But the Kremlin is apprehensive that its control over the occupied territories is still too tenuous. It also worries that annexing the southern territories to Russia may lead to resentment and frustration among the elites of the unrecognized Donbas republics, who have been waiting to join Russia for eight long years. 

The local population in occupied Ukraine is understandably hostile to the invaders, with some notable exceptions from marginal pro-Russian movements who have joined the occupying authorities, such as Volodymyr Saldo, a former mayor of Kherson and influential businessman who has been appointed head of the Kherson region “military-civilian administration.” Two high-ranking local pro-Russian activists were allegedly killed by the Ukrainian underground, while the occupying power has recently resorted to the use of arrests and kidnappings of local activists in order to suppress resistance. 

People are also voting with their feet. According to the Kherson region’s Ukrainian governor, Hennadiy Lahuta, a fifth of the region’s population (close to 1 million people prior to the invasion), as well as 45 percent of the population of Kherson city itself (280,000 before the war), have fled. Despite Russian troops blocking the exit routes from the occupied territory, the exodus continues

It’s very likely that the local population will sabotage any initiatives from the occupying authorities, and that Russia will struggle to hold the territories without keeping a significant number of armed troops on the ground. The risks of destabilization in the region will remain high. 

Unable to establish a stable, pro-Russian collaboration government, the Kremlin will most likely end up sending Russian officials to strengthen the local administration. The summer months will be decisive for southern Ukraine: if Kyiv is unable to liberate the territories, then by the fall, Russia’s positions will be stronger, and part of the local population will begin to adapt to the conditions of occupation, which will play into the hands of the Kremlin. 

The war has destabilized the Kherson region’s economy, especially the key agricultural sector: 14 percent of Ukraine’s total vegetable crop was grown there before the war, according to the Ukrainian Agrarian Business Club. Ukraine’s next harvest may be down by 35–40 percent from the previous year because the country has lost a quarter of its arable land as a result of the war, according to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Taras Vysotskyi. 

Considering that Ukraine produces about 10 percent of the world’s grain exports, control of this fertile territory should help Russia enact its plan to wage food blackmail on global markets. Since the beginning of the war, Kyiv has had to redirect its agricultural exports to its railways, since control over the south of Ukraine allows Russia to block Ukrainian grain exports by sea. In addition, the Russian authorities have been transporting Ukrainian agricultural produce and equipment back to Russian territory, according to Ukraine’s Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Mykola Solsky, and also exporting Ukrainian grain to the ports of the Middle East.

The occupying Russian authorities are trying to encourage local farmers to keep working by promising them debt relief, fuel, and fertilizers. During his visit to the Kherson region, Russia’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko promised local farmers equal support to that received by Russian farmers.   

At the same time, there are reports of threats to nationalize Ukrainian farmers’ land if they refuse to start sowing or pay taxes. Such threats have no basis in law, since the occupied territories have no legal status within Russia. The occupying authorities are also forcing farmers to sell their produce at a reduced price or demanding that they hand over one-third of the harvest in exchange for permission to transport their crops.

Some farmers have agreed under pressure to cooperate, but others are refusing to sow, or are using their own fuel and seed reserves, avoiding any contact with the occupying administration. This pressure on farmers may lead to a significant decline in agricultural production, and to the prospect of famine in the region. Some people in the Kherson region are already surviving on humanitarian aid, with local shops selling mostly low-quality Russian goods, according to Kherson’s elected mayor (who has since disappeared after reportedly being taken away by Russian troops).  

The occupied Kherson region is also home to part of the North Crimean Canal, which, prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, supplied the peninsula with 85 percent of its water. Following the 2014 annexation, the Ukrainian authorities built a dam in the Kherson region. Russian troops destroyed the dam when they entered the area in March 2022, restoring the water supply to Crimea.

The occupying authorities are trying to integrate the region with Russia as quickly as possible. On May 25, Putin signed a decree simplifying the procedure for granting Russian citizenship to residents of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Since May 1, the Russian ruble has been circulating alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia, and a full transition to the ruble is planned.

Ukrainians can already only receive their pensions in rubles. Because of a blockade imposed by the Russian side, no cash in hryvnia can enter the region, and cashless payments are impossible due to the internet shutdown. Russian propaganda seeks to create the illusion that Ukraine has abandoned its own people while Russia, on the contrary, is helping them. Similar tactics were used in Donbas in 2014. 

An information blockade from the Russian side plays a key role in this manipulation of public opinion. Ukrainian media have been blocked in the region, while Russian television like the propaganda channel Krym 24 has started being broadcast.

These attempts to directly integrate the local economy and population with Russia as closely as possible make the scenario of direct annexation by Russia more likely than the creation of another puppet republic. Either way, southern Ukraine risks becoming a bridgehead from which the Kremlin will continue its aggression against Ukraine.

Right now, Moscow is trying to persuade the world that the annexation of southern Ukraine is inevitable, and to use recognition of that annexation as a condition for peace. But even recognition—however unlikely—will not put an end to Russia’s territorial claims in Ukraine. Instead, it will only provoke further escalation, spreading the conflict to other Ukrainian regions.

By:
  • Konstantin Skorkin