Will Russia Govern the New Territories on Its Own?

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Anton Șveț Fighting in Ukraine is dragging on, which raises the question for Russia of how to manage the conquered territories. Judging by recent organizational and personnel decisions, Moscow intends to integrate Donbass and southern Ukraine as much as possible. In this sense, the question arises about Transdniestria, where since 2006 they have been announcing plans to gain independence and join Russia. In May, Andrey Turchak, secretary of United Russia’s General Council, visited Russian-occupied Kherson to declare that Russia had come to the city “forever”. Such words from a fairly influential Kremlin functionary sent an eloquent message about Moscow’s intentions in southern Ukraine. Recall that Kherson was captured on March 2 at the very beginning of Russia’s military “special operation”, with virtually no significant resistance, except for occasional public demonstrations. Volodymyr Saldo, the city’s former mayor, became head of the provisional civil-military administration. On April 26, Kirill Stremousov, a local pro-Russian politician and representative of the Socialist Party of Ukraine, became his deputy. He repeatedly voiced willingness to hold a referendum in Kherson on joining Russia. He even mentioned a deadline of the end of this year. Already this week, a fully pro-Russian civilian government was appointed in Kherson Oblast, headed by Sergei Yeliseyev, a Russian citizen, who had previously worked for many years in the administration of Kaliningrad oblast and the Federal Security Service, his deputy being Vladimir Bespalov, who had also worked with Yeliseyev in Kaliningrad. Mikhail Rodikov, from the Moscow Oblast, who had previously proven himself in adapting the educational system of Sevastopol to Russian standards, will be in charge of educational reforms. Thus, partly relying on local administrative personnel, Russia is using its own bureaucracy to gain a foothold in Kherson. Earlier, similar measures were taken in the “republics” of Donbass. Russia is not only filling the regional elite with its own specialists, but is also trying to tie these territories to itself on the legal and organizational level. Thus, a mass issuance of Russian passports has begun, and various documents issued by pro-Russian local authorities have been previously recognized for use in the Russian Federation. Actually, Moscow’s recognition of the LDPR’s sovereignty in February this year also creates legal basis for subsequent integration, the speed of which is directly related to whether it will succeed in reaching the administrative borders of the Donetsk Oblast through the capture of the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk agglomeration. In any case, Russia makes it clear that the conquered territories in the south and east of Ukraine can no longer be the subject of negotiations. By and large, this step is inevitable in wartime administration of these regions. At the same time, the hostilities are dragging on, the Russian and the LDPR forces already do not have a quantitative advantage, which in a stretched front prevents the effective advance and capture of large settlements in several areas of confrontation at once. The truly major battles in recent weeks have been taking place in the eastern and northeastern directions. At the same time, in the north of the Kherson Oblast, the offensive plans of both sides are practically unrealizable, with predominantly air and artillery duels taking place. Consequently, the situation requires management in a conventionally peacetime mode, which resulted in the formation of a civilian government. At the same time, a certain innovation in Moscow’s methods is worth noting. Previously, when interacting with rebel enclaves in the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin was usually satisfied with simply having a loyal, but still local ruling elite, without rushing to fully integrate these territories into the Russian Federation. Now the tactics have obviously changed, at least in Ukraine – the Russian leadership is trying to bypass the intermediate stage of creating some quasi-state formations on the seized territories and immediately give them a clear prospect of joining Russia as a new federal entity. Meanwhile, the idea of “landing officials” from Russia has never been realized in Transdniestria, with the exception of the very first years of the rebellious republic (immediately after the armed conflict in 1992). Although such plans were in the works of the Kremlin at various stages, especially after the signing of the agreement between the leader of the left bank, Igor Smirnov, and the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, and the holding of the referendum in 2006. However, local political and business elites actively resisted this influence, preferring to work in a subordinate mode, but to control all processes on the ground independently. This made it possible to preserve a convenient model of governance and specific ties with the right bank of the Dniester. A certain degree of independence of Tiraspol, which is recognized even by Chisinau, is ignored by Moldova’ Western allies. PACE by a majority vote declares that Russia occupies the left bank of the Dniester, that is, in fact, it considers Transdniestria as a pro-Russian enclave on the territory of Moldova. The ECHR passes judicial decisions, making the Russian and Moldovan authorities as defendants. At the same time, the region has suffered for years because of economic restrictions. In fact, Russia suffers image damage in the case of Tiraspol’s actions irritating the Western community, but in fact it cannot moderate all the processes on the left bank of the Dniester. This reality may change as the “special military operation” develops. However, given the decrease of its pace and the fact that the negotiations on settlement of the Transdniestrian conflict have not yet been terminated, we are talking about a fairly long-term perspective. Our leadership itself will have to decide with whom it prefers to communicate – with the de facto authorities in Tiraspol or with Moscow. In the first case, we must try not to destroy the existing 5+2 format negotiation; in the second case, the Kremlin itself will announce its conditions in its own time, even if it is not so soon.