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.”