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Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army has managed to take control of several areas in the east and south of the country. Although information on the conflict is often incomplete and difficult to verify, something is known about the first moves of the Russians in the conquered cities: several international newspapers have reported that Russia is forcibly removing local politicians by replacing them with its own allies and is repressing the dissent by force.
“Local politicians are disappearing, the new authorities warn that protests will be considered acts of extremism, while some Ukrainians continue to resist”, he wrote the Washington Post. It is generally feared that what is happening in the conquered cities could soon be replicated across the country.
Kiev, the capital, is still under Ukrainian control for now, but the Russian army has managed to capture some rather large cities like Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk in the south, as well as a number of smaller locations, especially north of Mariupol, a city considered strategic to gain control of the area between Crimea and Donbass.
In some cases the Russian army is using the conquered territories as a foothold to advance further. In others, and they are the most important ones to try to imagine how the situation could evolve, the Russian army is trying to impose its power, even using force.
It happened for example to Melitopol it’s at Dniprorudne, two cities in south-eastern Ukraine where, according to various witnesses, their respective mayors, democratically elected, have been kidnapped. Ukrainian authorities said that in both cases the mayors had opposed the Russian occupation and urged the population to resist.
The mayor of Melitopol is called Ivan Fedorov. In this city, Russian is the most used language, and Fedorov himself is of Russian ethnicity: for this reason, as in other territories of eastern Ukraine, the Russian army he expected to be accepted almost without resistance. But here as elsewhere it did not happen. Ukrainian authorities said Fedorov was kidnapped in the center of Melitopol, hooded with a plastic bag and taken away by a dozen armed men. The Russian news agency TASS, which is part of the Russian government’s propaganda machine, has made it known that various accusations have been made, including that of terrorism, which the Russian authorities often level at their opponents.
In his place, the Russians appointed Galina Danilchenko, a former member of the Melitopol city council. In her first public speech, Danilchenko claimed to have brought the city back to normal and urged citizens not to engage in “extremist actions”. Danilchenko was Fedorov’s opposition leader. He is part of a pro-Russian political party born in 2014 from merger of a series of parties that had opposed the pro-European demonstrations of those years.
How he wrote Paola Peduzzi on the Sheetthis makes Melitopol a kind of “laboratory of Vladimir Putin’s political initiative in the conquered cities of Ukraine”.
The mayor kidnapped in Dniprorudne is Yevhen Matveyev: the news of his kidnapping, given by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, is on Sunday, and it is not yet known who will replace him. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, he defined the kidnapping of Matveyev “another attack on Ukrainian democratic institutions” and another attempt by Russia to install an alternative local government in Ukraine.
The Russian attempts to rule conquered areas by force are also noticeable in the repression of protests and dissent from the local population.
The protests mainly concerned Kherson, a city of about 300,000 inhabitants and the largest conquered by the Russians so far, Melitopol, where hundreds of people demonstrated against the kidnapping of the mayor, and Berdyansk. They are all cities busy by the Russians and strategically very important: they are in fact the main centers of the Zaporizhzhia region, which if conquered in its entirety would remove the unblocking of Ukraine on the Sea of Azov and therefore limit the possibility of receiving aid by sea. In these cities the Russian army has arrested hundreds of people and fired a few warning shots (it seems, for now, without causing deaths).
– Read also: Protests in occupied Ukrainian cities
In Kherson it seems that the Russian army is also putting into practice operations already implemented in the past in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014. On March 7, for example, local authorities reported the disappearance of an activist. Oleksandr Tarasov (then reappeared 24 hours later). The disappearance of opposition activists, writes L’Economist, it has been quite frequent in Crimea since its annexation to Russia. According to Crimea SOS, a local NGO, at least 24 people have disappeared in Crimea since 2014.
Also in Kherson, Mayor Igor Kolikhayev he said that he refused to accept a referendum, proposed by the Russian army, to transform Kherson into the “People’s Republic of Kherson”. That is, in essence, in a self-proclaimed republic like those of Luhansk and Donetsk, in the Donbass. The request would be consistent with the attempt to divide Ukraine into a series of “pseudo-republicsUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday.
However, the violence carried out by Russia could make it more difficult for the invaders to maintain control of Ukrainian territory over time. “The Ukrainians are now united against the invader”, he wrote L’Economist, and for a puppet government imposed in Ukraine by Putin it would be virtually impossible to govern without the help of a military occupation. A very different scenario, therefore, from what happened with Crimea in 2014, practically conquered “by surprise” and with much less violence than today.
– Read also: Can Putin be tried for war crimes?