How the Kremlin is forcing Ukrainians to adopt Russian life

A woman uses her phone on a bench as Russian servicemen patrol the street in Skadovsk, in Ukraine's Kherson region. PHOTO: AFP

KYIV (NYTIMES) - They have handed out Russian passports, cellphone numbers and set-top boxes for watching Russian television. They have replaced Ukrainian currency with the rouble, rerouted the Internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds who have resisted assimilation.

In ways big and small, the occupying authorities on territory won by Moscow's forces are using fear and indoctrination to compel Ukrainians to adopt a Russian way of life.

"We are one people," blue-white-and-red billboards say.

"We are with Russia."

Now comes the next act in President Vladimir Putin's 21st-century version of a war of conquest: the grassroots "referendum."

Russia-appointed administrators in cities like Kherson in Ukraine's south are setting the stage for a vote as early as September that the Kremlin will present as a popular desire 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.

Any referendum would be totally illegitimate, Ukrainian and Western officials say, but it would carry ominous consequences.

Analysts 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 Ukraine to drive out Russian forces potentially much more costly.

Residents apply for Russian citizenship in Melitopol, in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region. PHOTO: AFP

Kherson is one of four regions in which officials are signalling planned referendums, along with Zaporizhzhia in the south and Luhansk and Donetsk in the east.

While the Kremlin says it will be up to the area's residents to "determine their own future," Putin last month hinted he expected to annex the regions outright.

As a result, a scramble to mobilise the residents of Russian-occupied territories for a referendum is increasingly visible on the ground.

Russian servicemen sit on benches in Melitopol, in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region. PHOTO: AFP

The Russian-appointed authorities of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, for instance, announced this past week that they were forming "election commissions" to prepare for referendums, which one official said could happen Sept 11 - a day when local and regional elections are scheduled to be held across Russia.

"Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook," John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said this month.

"Annexation by force will be a gross violation of the UN Charter, and we will not allow it to go unchallenged or unpunished."

A sign reads "Looking to purchase rouble", at a street market in the city of Kherson, Ukraine. PHOTO: REUTERS

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