In regions of Ukraine that are now occupied by Russia, the local leaders are forcing civilians to accept Russian rule and adopt a Russian way of life.
Local leaders have handed out Russian passports, cellphone numbers, and set-top boxes for watching Russian television. The Ukrainian currency has been replaced with the ruble. Even the internet has been rerouted through Russian servers.
Hundreds have been arrested for resisting assimilation.
In ways big and small, the occupying authorities on territory seized by Moscow’s forces are using fear and indoctrination to compel Ukrainians to adopt a Russian way of life.
Giant blue-white-and red billboards read: “We are one people. We are with Russia.”
Now comes the next act in President Vladimir Putin’s 21st-century version of a war of conquest: the grass-roots “referendum.”
Russia-appointed administrators in local towns, villages, and cities in the south of Ukraine are setting the stage for a vote as early as September that the Kremlin will present as a popular desire in the region to become part of Russia.
They are recruiting pro-Russia locals for new “election commissions” and promoting to Ukrainian civilians the putative benefits of joining their country; they are even reportedly printing the ballots already.
Ukrainian and Western officials have been clear that any referendum would be totally illegitimate. And if a referendum comes through, it would carry ominous consequences.
Analysts both in Moscow and Ukraine expect that it would serve as a prelude to Putin’s officially declaring the conquered area to be Russian territory, protected by Russian nuclear weapons-making future attempts by Kyiv to drive out Russian forces potentially much more costly.
If the parts of Ukraine are annexed by Russia, would also represent Europe’s biggest territorial expansion by force since World War II. It would ultimately affect an area several times larger than Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Putin took over in 2014.