By Vladimir Socor*
Russia designates its all-out aggression in Ukraine as a “special military operation,” avoiding the term “war.” Nevertheless, the Kremlin has imposed a “state of war” (voyennoye polozhenie) in the Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine. This decision caps the declaration of a partial military mobilization in Russia on September 21, the fraudulent blitz referendums staged in the four regions from September 23 to 27 and the constitutional procedures carried out in Moscow between September 28 and October 5 proclaiming the annexation of these regions to Russia (see EDM, September 23, “Blitz Referendums” and “Novorossiya Project”; September 28, October 3, 12, 13).
On October 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree (ukaz) introducing the state of war in the four regions, coming into effect on October 20. Putin presented the decree as motivated by Ukraine’s refusal to recognize the referendums and annexations as valid and by Kyiv’s “neo-Nazi regime trying to create a terrorist underground [in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia] in the style of its Banderite predecessors” (Kremlin.ru, October 19).
The official state of war changes little in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where it has existed de facto since 2014. In the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, occupied since March 2022, however, the state of war is designed to confirm and underscore their annexation, intensify social regimentation and political repression of the local population, requisition and “nationalize” property from Ukrainian state and private owners, as well as set the stage for changing the demography of both regions through population transfers.
Putin’s decree provides the legal basis for activating the state of war regime, without practical specifications. The decree instructs the government to present, within three days (by October 22 or 23), a detailed program for implementing the decree, drawing on proposals from the Russian Ministries of Defense, Internal Affairs, Civil Defense and Emergency Situations; the Federal Security Service (FSB); and the National Guard (Rosgvardiya) (Kremlin.ru, October 19). No such implementation program has yet been reported, however. And Putin‘s decree does not specify a time limit for the state of war regime.
Under Russia’s Law on the State of War, the state of war regime, once decreed, remains in force until revoked by a subsequent decree. During the regime, the Russian authorities may: set up territorial defense formations; summon citizens to perform labor for defense purposes; temporarily evacuate enterprises and administrative institutions; temporarily remove citizens from their places of residence to resettle them elsewhere (with substitute housing mandatory); requisition property, with “subsequent” compensation; suspend the activity of associations that undermine the security of the state; introduce censorship of postal and internet communications; intercept telephone conversations; and intern or isolate citizens of enemy countries (TASS, October 19).
Such discretionary powers would enable the occupation authorities to integrate the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions into Russia in short order through coercion, intimidation and repression, unless organized popular resistance develops in both areas.
Russia’s Law on Defense regulates, inter alia, territorial defense formations. These are set up in those jurisdictions (administrative-territorial units) where the state of war has been declared and will operate for the duration of the state of war regime. A territorial defense headquarters will be set up in each jurisdiction, headed by the highest executive official in that jurisdiction and comprised of the heads of relevant law enforcement, administrative and economic state bodies. Under that same law, territorial defense formations protect civilian institutions and critical infrastructure, watch for foreign infiltrators and saboteurs, as well as actively combat unlawful armed formations (TASS, October 19).
While the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been in a state of war since 2014, complete with territorial defense detachments, this system is now being introduced in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. According to local occupation authorities, the mobilization of military reservists currently ongoing throughout Russia does not apply to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions “for the time being.”—nor does the next conscription cycle, which is due to start on November 1 (TASS, October 20).
These reprieves are almost certainly temporary or transitory measures. The territorial defense formations can serve as a partial substitute for the mobilization of conscripts and reservists. The Russian military in these occupied regions will, moreover, welcome the enlistment of local volunteers, regardless of whether they hold Russian or Ukrainian passports, according to General (ret.) Andrey Kartapolov, chair of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee (TASS, October 21). Whether through territorial defense formations or volunteer enlistment, the occupation authorities may manipulate local residents into fighting against Ukrainian forces.
From April until September 2022, Russia administered the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions through the instrument of military-civil administrations, headed by Russian military commandants and staffed by civilians (see EDM, April 7, July 28, Part One and Part Two). Following the “referendums” and annexations, the military-civil administrations were scheduled to turn into civilian ones, nominally headed by a local figure but in practice heavily staffed by Russian carpetbaggers. The introduction of the state of war has stopped and reversed this transition. Ultimately, power has reverted into the hands of the Russian military commands in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions (TASS, October 20).
The Ukrainian army’s liberation campaign in Kherson region has ground to a halt. This should not be surprising as the army is insufficiently equipped with heavy long-range artillery, tanks and helicopters. Hopes that the Ukrainian army would advance and liberate Kherson mainly on the strength of their superior morale and leadership, as well as Russian deficiencies, have not been borne out. Ukrainian forces do not seem to have significantly advanced beyond the 500 square kilometers they held as of October 7 on the northern fringes of the 28,500-square-kilometer Kherson region (see EDM, October 12).
According to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov in interviews with international media, the offensive is stagnating because Russian troops are using the network of irrigation canals as trenches and because of autumn rains (Fox News, October 25, cited by Ukraiynska Pravda, October 26; and Japan Public TV, October 25, cited by Ukrinform, October 26). According to Deputy Defense Minister Anna Maliar on the national daily television newscast: “In Kherson region we find ourselves in an active defensive posture, the situation is under control, we are not losing territory” (Ukrinform, October 26).
The city of Kherson is the main prize of this campaign. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, the Russian army is building defensive positions around the city on both banks of the Dnipro River (Ukrinform, October 25). Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, General Kyrylo Budanov, told Ukrainian media that the Russian military is not about to withdraw from the city of Kherson onto the left bank of Dnipro as some had expected. Instead, the Russians are bringing troop reinforcements from the left bank into the city, preparing for defense and urban combat (Ukraiynska Pravda, October 24).
The civilian occupation authorities, however, continue the evacuation program they initiated in the second week of October in anticipation of a more successful Ukrainian offensive. The evacuation concept envisages resettling Kherson residents to Russia’s Rostov region, as well as Krasnodar and Stavropol territories. Residents from the right bank (in the path of potential Ukrainian military advances) are prioritized for evacuation, but left-bank residents are also entitled. In addition, the inclusion of children in this program has been emphasized. Evacuees are being offered accommodation in those regions gratis, as well as housing vouchers for those who choose to remain permanently there or in any Russian territory. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin is supervising this resettlement program from Moscow, coordinating with Kherson civilian occupation authorities. The program has been heavily publicized (TASS, October 13, 14, 18, 19, 21, 24).
The transparent intention is to send local Ukrainians into Russia’s interior for “Russification” and the resulting loss of national identity for adults and children. The city of Kherson is a Ukrainian-majority city. Its population of 328,000 at the latest census (2001) was, by ethnic self-identification, 77 percent Ukrainian and 20 percent Russian—and by native language, 53 percent Ukrainian and 45 percent Russian (the discrepancy reflects the legacy of forced Russification) (2001.ukrcensus.gov, accessed October 26). The ratio of ethnic and linguistic self-identification has, undoubtedly, changed in favor of Ukrainian since the 2001 census. Thus, the evacuation program is a move for “de-Ukrainization” and subsequent Russification.
The occupation authorities currently plan to resettle up to 60,000 Kherson city residents to Russia. The initial target number was higher but could not be met; the 60,000 figure also seems unlikely to be fulfilled without outright coercion. The authorities currently go door-to-door “recommending” the evacuation. Some 15,000 residents had crossed onto the left bank at last count, but few seem to have departed from Kherson region (TASS, October 23). Meanwhile, military-age men remaining in the city are being invited to volunteer for territorial defense detachments (RIA Novosti, October 24).
The civilian occupation administration has, however, largely evacuated itself from the right bank to the left bank of the Dnipro. From October 19 to date, the administration has relocated the Russian carpetbagger officials and most local collaborators, as well as archives, banks, internet providers and various other movable assets. Inter alia, they have evacuated the statues of Prince Grigory Potemkin (who lies buried in the city of Kherson), General Aleksandr Suvorov and Admiral Fedor Ushakov, figures emblematic of the Russian Empire’s conquest of Novorossiya in the late 18th century (RIA Novosti, October 24; TASS, October 26).
The civilian administration’s relocation is a precautionary measures as long as the Ukrainian army’s advance toward the city remains a possibility. That remains unlikely, however, unless Ukrainian forces are provided with the necessary military supplies and equipment by Western partners.
*About the author: Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor (1995 to date), where he writes analytical articles on a daily basis. An internationally recognized expert on the former Soviet-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, he covers Russian and Western policies, focusing on energy, regional security issues, Russian foreign affairs, secessionist conflicts, and NATO policies and programs. Mr. Socor is a frequent speaker at U.S. and European policy conferences and think-tank institutions; as well as a regular guest lecturer at the NATO Defense College and at Harvard University’s National Security Program’s Black Sea Program.
Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation here Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 160 (Part 1) and here Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 160 (Part II)