KYIV (NYTIMES) - The Kremlin began formally issuing Russian passports to Ukrainians living under occupation on Saturday (June 11), even as Moscow's forces confront a growing insurgency in areas they control in southern Ukraine and struggle to provide essential services like medical care.
The move to hand out Russian identification papers is just one facet of Russia's attempts to solidify Moscow's control in the south, including making the rouble the legal currency and cutting off Ukrainian cellphone networks. Ukrainian authorities have warned about such a move for weeks, with Ukraine's foreign ministry saying it would be "a flagrant violation" of the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Ukraine's military has also claimed to have found evidence of earlier plans by Moscow to issue Russian passports around Kyiv, the capital. After Russian forces were forced to withdraw from around the city, a cache of passport forms from the former Soviet Union was found in an abandoned house near the town of Makariv, according to the Ukrainian military intelligence agency.
Such documents, which have not been produced in Ukraine since 1990, were brought into the country by Russian forces during the war to be used as blueprints for new identification papers, the Ukrainians said.
Ukrainian officials have urged people living in occupied regions not to apply for the passports, but also fear that Russia could use coercive measures - like requiring them for employment - to force people to exchange their documents. Russian news outlets reported on Saturday that authorities in the south had handed out about two dozen Russian passports in Kherson and 30 in Melitopol, with hundreds more applications pending.
As Russia takes an increasing hold on the occupied areas, including the southern region of Kherson and a large chunk of neighbouring Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian officials and witnesses who have fled the area have described a grim picture of life under occupation.
The exiled mayor of the city of Kherson, the only Ukrainian provincial capital captured by Russian forces, said that thousands of residents had lost their jobs and their sources of income. "Cafes and summer food courts, which we've always had plenty of, are now closed," Ihor Kolykhaiev, the exiled mayor, said in a lengthy statement about the conditions in the city based on accounts of people living there. People have not been able to get a Ukrainian cellphone signal in more than a week.
In Mariupol, the Black Sea port that was levelled by Russia, even basic medical needs are not being met, according to the Ukrainians. And Britain's defence ministry on Friday joined a growing chorus expressing alarm about the increasingly dangerous living conditions in the city. A lack of clean water, the destruction of the sanitation system and the collapse of the health care system, the ministry reiterated, could fuel an outbreak of cholera.
Even as workers in Mariupol continue to dig bodies out of the rubble following a months-long bombardment, Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the city's mayor, said that Russian forces were broadcasting propaganda from cars of "pseudo-historical" programs about Peter the Great, apparently taking their cue from President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who said this past week that he was engaged in a similar campaign to capture lands he views as rightfully Russian.
Moscow has made similar "Russification" efforts before. In the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine known as the Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic, the Kremlin opened up a fast track to Russian citizenship for residents in April 2019. Hundreds of thousands of people received passports.
The same thing happened after Moscow staged a referendum after invading in Crimea in 2014. Residents voted to join Russia, although the annexation was not recognised internationally.