Russian Officials Appointed to Top Posts in Occupied Ukraine

A growing number of Russian officials have been given leadership positions in occupied parts of Ukraine in what analysts have called a bid to strengthen ties with Moscow ahead of a possible annexation process.

This week alone, the nominations included a former member of the Russian parliament, regional government officials and a high-ranking Federal Security Service (FSB) officer.

“Russians are sent there to bring Russian standards,” political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky told the Moscow Times. “Moscow wants to hold a referendum [on joining Russia] and it seems that the Russians are going to prepare everything.

This parachuting of officials is the latest sign that Russia is seeking to bring occupied Ukrainian areas closer to its orbit. The Kremlin also launched a country integrate the occupied areas by pairing Russian and Ukrainian cities, give Russian passports, and to relocate major Russian banks and mobile operators.

Perhaps the most publicized example to date came on Tuesday, when former Russian parliamentary deputy Andrei Kozenko was made the deputy head of the “military-civilian administration” for the occupied areas of the Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhya. He will oversee economic integration with Russia, according to an official statement.

The day before Kozenko’s installation in the Zaporizhzhya region, former FSB officer Sergei Yeliseyev was made head of government in the occupied Kherson region.

Russian lawmaker Andrei Kozenko addresses the forum “Russia – Donbass: Unity of Priorities”.
Nikolai Trichin / TASS

According to Konstantin Skorkin, an expert on eastern Ukraine policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the reasons Russia has resorted to sending its own officials is that Ukrainians in the occupied territories don’t want to switch sides.

“Despite [Ukrainian] parties considered pro-Russian with significant representation in these regions, most MPs refused to cooperate with the occupation authorities,” Skorkin told the Moscow Times.

“In Kherson, for example, people are not sure that these areas will join Russia because Ukraine could take them back at any time.”

Other Ukrainians may have been dissuaded from accepting Russian offers of collaboration by assassinating officials of Russian “military-civilian administrations”. For instance, Dmytro Savluchenko, who headed the family, youth and sports directorate of the Russian government based in Kherson, deceased in a car bomb attack last month.

Besides former FSB officer Yeliseyev, two other Russian officials – Mikhail Rodikov and Vladimir Bespalov – were also appointed to high-level government posts in Kherson this week.

Bespalov, a former deputy minister of the Kaliningrad region, will oversee domestic policy, while Rodikov, a Moscow region official, has been appointed education and science minister.

Several of the new appointees have experience integrating Ukrainian regions into Russia, having worked in Crimea after it was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Rodnikov spent three years adapting the Crimean education system to Russian standards, according to the Telegram channel of the Kherson regional military administration, while Kozenko was a Ukrainian politician who joined the ruling United Russia party in 2014 and continued to represent Crimea in the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Local people take part in a flag-raising ceremony at Victory Square in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhya region. Alexei Konovalov / TASS

Local people take part in a flag-raising ceremony at Victory Square in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhya region.
Alexei Konovalov / TASS

The breakaway Russian-backed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine have also seen Russian officials appointed to high-level government posts in recent weeks.

A former senior official in Russia’s Trade and Industry Ministry, Vitaly Khotsenko, was appointed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic last month. And the former vice-governor of the Russian Kurgan region, Vladislav Kuznetsov, became the first vice-president of the Lugansk People’s Republic.

Installing Russian officials could also be a way to provide oversight of the huge sums of money the Kremlin has earmarked for rebuilding occupied Ukraine, analysts say.

Russia could spend up to 3.5 trillion rubles ($60 billion) on reconstruction projects in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according statements by separatist leaders.

“Russia is allocating huge sums for the reconstruction of Donbass and Moscow does not trust the local authorities,” Skorkin told the Moscow Times.

While Russian officials have been publicly equivocal about the prospect of annexing occupied parts of Ukraine, developments on the ground suggest this is an increasingly likely outcome of a process of creeping integration.

The administrations installed by Russia in Kherson and Zaporizhia have already announced their intention to hold a referendum on joining Russia later this year. Leaders of Russia-backed breakaway republics have also called for similar popular votes.

Although President Vladimir Putin asserted at the start of the invasion of Ukraine that Russia had no plan to absorb Ukrainian territory, the appointment of Russian officials in the occupied areas indicates that Moscow is planning otherwise, according to the analyst Preobrazhensky.

“We could see full annexation by this fall,” Nikolaus von Twickel, a former OSCE staffer who studies the Donbass region, told The Moscow Times.

“Previously the Kremlin tried to follow the rules, but that time is already over.”

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