Three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its only major successes have come in the southern part of Ukraine: the capture of Kherson—the only Ukrainian regional capital to fall since 2014—and its siege of Mariupol, which is surrounded and under brutal attack.
It is nearly impossible for Western or Ukrainian journalists not under Russian control to get behind the lines and see what is going on in Russian-occupied territory. But thanks to a stream of information provided by social media and the statements of Russian propagandists, there is a flow of information. By taking a look at what Ukrainians say and show is going on in the occupied parts of southern Ukraine and comparing them with Russian reports, we can see that those still in the region have not greeted their occupiers as “liberators” but continue to resist, in one way or another, and we are developing a clearer picture of Russia’s long-term strategy and the end-state they want in Ukraine.
Kherson fell to the Russians on March 2. Melitopol, a smaller city in a neighboring province, fell very quickly and has been under occupation for slightly longer. After Russian soldiers seized Kherson, they mostly left to continue the offensive toward Mykolaiv (another port city about 40 miles away). They were replaced by troops from the Russian Rosgvardiya or “National Guard.” The term “National Guard” conjures up the U.S. National Guard, state-based forces within America’s military reserve that can activate in wartime or domestically for natural disasters and states of emergency. The Rosgvardiya is a much, much different organization. It is basically Putin’s goon agency. The Rosgvardiya was founded only in 2016, and formed by folding in a lot of different Interior Ministry troops, including a force of guards-for-hire that Russian businesses can pay for. The division of labor appears to be thus: The Russian army takes the ground and then the Rosgvardiya occupies it, but there have been a few videos of Rosgvardiya troops engaging directly in firefights on the front lines.
The director of the National Guard is Viktor Zolotov, the former bodyguard of the mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s (when Putin was vice mayor). He is an old and loyal servant of Putin who has worked in senior positions in the FSB and the FSO, two Russian successor organizations of the KGB, and for a time he was the commander of the Russian Interior Ministry. Zolotov gave one of the more out-there speeches of the run-up to the war during Putin’s security council conference on February 21: “We do not border Ukraine, we have no border with Ukraine. It is a border with the Americans. Because they are the masters in that country. The rest are just puppets.”
Zolotov is in charge of much of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. How should we expect him to respond to defiance from the Ukrainians “liberated” from “American control”? Russian analysts may have anticipated a warmer reception in these regions of southern Ukraine, where the population is more Russian speaking than other regions. The Ukrainian people of Kherson and Melitopol are not cooperating, though. Smartphone videos of anti-occupation protests in Kherson come out regularly. The participants yell at Russian occupiers to go home, insulting them, and brandish Ukrainian flags. There are similar scenes coming out of Melitopol, a smaller occupied city in a neighboring region. One video shows a loudspeaker-car of the Rosgvardiya informing residents that protests are verboten.
The Russian propagandists Alexey Zhuravko, a former politician who has blared anti-Ukrainian rhetoric focused on Kherson since 2014, let slip that these videos are not isolated incidents in a sea of pro-Russian sentiment or complacency. On March 11 he wrote on the Russian social media site VK:
People are surprised that there are no people who would sympathize with the actions of Russia in the liberated cities, but [instead] supporters of Ukrainian nationalism arrange their processions almost according to a schedule.
In fact, there is nothing surprising here. The thing is that the military special operation for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine and the liberation of the population that lives on this territory are somewhat different processes. The demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine is a military process, and the liberation of the people who live in this territory is, first of all, a political, ideological, and informational process. It is precisely for this reason that these processes have not developed synchronously in the liberated territories, and we can see processions with Ukrainian flags and other united Ukrainian activists who arrange various provocations in these territories… these people must be liberated not only by military means, but above all, they must be liberated POLITICALLY, which in Melitopol and Kherson, for example, has not happened.
How is this “political liberation” going to happen? Well, some Russians are still optimistic that the people will eventually come around and head back to their old submissive-to-Moscow ways. As one pro-Russian “journalist” in southern Ukraine put it:
“Every day journalists are working in the Kherson region. They are talking to people. The older generation is completely ours [pro-Russian], the middle generation is waiting for a signal that Ukraine is gone forever and that they are in Russia. During conversations, people are interested in simple things: how much does milk, carrots, or cabbage cost at the wholesale market in Simferopol? Will they let them sell their vegetables? Should we plant watermelons to sell to Moscow and the Urals, or not?
The Kherson region is an agrarian region, a kulak region, and if they understand that in the fall they can put good money under their mattress … they will have no doubts.)”
He is referring here to Kherson’s traditional biggest markets for its agricultural goods: Crimea and Russia. Once Kherson’s farmers realize that they can start selling to those places again, the argument goes, the “middle generation” will come around. Of course, if it does not, then the Rosgvardiya will provide encouragement. So far it appears that the Rosgvardiya has publicly applied a light touch to the city of Kherson: The pro-Ukraine protests are still happening, but everyone knows what is coming. In Kalanchak, a town in the Kherson countryside just over the border from Russia, the Rosgvardiya has already started to use its well-honed anti-protest tactics. A single video has emerged of these goons tapping aluminum riot shields with truncheons as they advance to “liberate” some locals.
Putin stated that one of the main goals of his renewed war against Ukraine is “de-Nazification,” and his goons know the end game that that implies. An online Russian propaganda rag put it like this:
The liberation of cities and towns from Bandera [Ukrainian Nationalists], while leaving the former bureaucracy in place, is not a guarantee of peaceful life, but a neo-Nazi time bomb. In the territories liberated from Nazism, peaceful construction must begin with a team of Russian professionals and patriots. Otherwise, the supposedly “changed” officials will arrange sabotage and provocations at any time.
In Melitopol a security camera caught troops, probably Rosgvardiya, kidnapping the mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov. The Russians quickly appointed a new mayor, who announced that Russian TV broadcasts would soon start up in the city and urged citizens to watch them. The “liberation” of Ukrainian minds continues apace!
The mayor of Kherson is still in his office, but expect that to change. Just a few days ago he released a statement defying the creation of any “Kherson Peoples’ Republic,” stating boldly that “Kherson is Ukraine.” Russian propagandists were already calling for his head: “The mayor of Kherson conducts subversive activities against his own citizens.”
There is surely also armed resistance going on behind the lines, though there are fewer videos of that from down south. There are, however, occasional references to the depredations of the Ukrainian “Territorial Defense” in the areas already passed by the Russian front lines. These are the local fighters who will continue to harass Russian occupiers and torch Russian supply trucks even if their mayor has been murdered and the Rosgvardiya has shut down protests. Unfortunately, as Russian occupation forces are increasingly frustrated that the Ukrainian spirit has not cracked and that the war is not going as quickly as expected, Russian occupation forces will probably get increasingly brutal, possibly even bringing back public executions and rationing food to the politically loyal as a form of control. This is part of the reason for the Ukrainian military’s dogged resistance against stacked odds—they know what awaits them and their families under occupation.