Forced Russification and Deportation: What Russia is doing in the occupied territories

As the Russian army advances deeper into Ukrainian territory, the occupying authorities impose their own rules on the occupied regions. Often this means forced Russification of the local population, repression, and deportation of Ukrainians to the Russian interior.

Russia takes root

At the end of May there was an official  proclamation that Russia would assume patronage over the “DNR” and “LNR” and would manage rebuilding the infrastructure of ravaged cities. Simultaneously, the Russian government announced the preparation of plans to restore the territories “taken under control” by the Russian army in Donbas, that Moscow will automatically include in the so-called “DNR” and “LNR” (the unrecognized separatist republics created by Russia). On behalf of Vladimir Putin the governors of the Russian regions will assume control over various regions of Donbas.

In fact, this means that the formation of administrations in the occupied territories will be completely under Russian control. Information occasionally appears in social networks that officials and intelligence officers in the occupied regions also will recruit in Russia. This is completely believable, considering that a similar policy has existed in occupied Crimea for many years.

Meanwhile the first fruits of the activities of the occupation administrations are already visible today. According to information from the advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, the occupation forces are introducing the ruble and promising to issue Russian passports on an accelerated basis in the occupied territories. Eyewitnesses report that in Mariupol and other cities seized by the Russians, several cars are circulating with screens broadcasting Kremlin propaganda.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin signed a decree granting Russian citizenship through a simplified process to the residents of the Kherson and Zaporozhe regions of Ukraine, and the telephone numbers of the territories controlled by Russia in these regions switched to the Russian telephone code +7 instead of the previously valid Ukrainian code +380. In Melitopol a new university was established with an educational system adapted to the Russian system replacing existing institutions. As reported by the British Ministry of Defense, all of these activities make clear Russia’s intention to exert strong, long range political and economic influence over the occupied regions.

Deportation of Ukrainians

In addition to strengthening the Russian presence in the Ukrainian regions, the new authorities are intensively engaged in the export of Ukrainian refugees to the Russian territory. The advisor of the mayor of Mariupol, Petr Andryushchenko made public a video showing how the Russians are transporting civilians from Mariupol into Russia. Andryushchenko called this process deportation. His information is confirmed by eyewitness accounts of the residents of Mariupol. According to Ministry of Defense information, more than 1.3 million Ukrainians have been transported to Russia. From besieged Mariupol alone, more than 140,000 people were transported to different cities.

Refugees report that after passing through the so-called “filtration” at the exit from the city, the Russians sent them to temporary refugee reception centers, including in the Far East: Primorsk, Khabarovsk, and Kamchatka. All the Ukrainians transported to Russia affirm that their Ukrainian passports were confiscated. To get them back is possible only by renouncing refugee status, which means the loss of any legal status in Russia including the right to receive assistance. 

Lawyers rightly point out that it is simply impossible to get to European countries from the Far East or Siberia without an international passport. Russian human rights activist Mikhail Savva, who lives in Kyiv, also noted that many Ukrainians do not have money for tickets, and Ukrainian bank cards do not work in Russia. 

People who hastily loaded onto buses, sometimes at gunpoint from Russian soldiers, simply couldn’t take everything they needed with them, in particular, money,” the human rights activist explains.

Mikhail Savva has been part of the group documenting war crimes committed in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion of the Russian army in February 2022. In his opinion, the export of Ukrainians to the territory of Russia has two goals. First, during the filtering, the Russian authorities are trying to find people whom they will use in the future in politically motivated show trials. The second task is to grant citizenship to Ukrainians who can be forced to do so in order to cover the natural decline in the Russian population, which is currently about 600,000 people a year.

The human rights activist emphasizes that many Ukrainians did not know where they were being taken. That is why such forced deportation is qualified as “the deportation of the population by the occupying power”, which, according to the Geneva Conventions, is a war crime.

Population replacement traditions

For several years now Russia has been trying to solve its demographic problem by granting citizenship to foreigners, in particular, through the “resettlement of compatriots” programs. Last September the Russian government affirmed a program for the voluntary resettlement of Russians living abroad. A program for the voluntary resettlement of fellow countrymen has been in existence for 15 years, although it has acquired special meaning of late. Last year, for example, 735.4 thousand foreigners received Russian citizenship.

One gets the impression that Moscow is trying to replace opposition-minded Russians who are leaving the country against the background of the war with refugees; while the disloyal ones, on the contrary, are being “squeezed out” abroad. The exact number of people who left Russia after February 24 is still unknown. As of last May, sociologists’ estimates range from 150,000 people to 3.8 million, which is comparable to the entire emigration from Russia over the period from 2000 to 2020. Instead, Moscow is actively trying to attract Ukrainian refugees, either initially loyal to Russia, or driven to despair and completely dependent on the Russian authorities.

A similar practice has been used by the Russian authorities in occupied Crimea and Donbas. Already in 2017 Crimean Tatar activist Zair Smedlyaev noted that the population of the Crimean Peninsula is being deliberately displaced by newcomers. In his words, he was talking not only about military and intelligence officers, but also judges, farmers, officials, doctors, and education workers. According to the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, in only the 3.5 years since annexation 550 thousand Russians and refugees from the Donbass have moved to the peninsula. The problem of the displaced  population of Crimea has often been raised in Geneva in various UN committees

The policy of settling loyal Russians in occupied territory is employed by Moscow in Donbas, as well. According to the residents, people are massively dismissed from enterprises, forcing them to go to work abroad, and in their place are hired visitors from distant Siberian villages who dreamed of moving to a big city. It is highly likely that the same fate may befall the newly occupied territories.

“Filtration” in Russian style

Ukrainian human rights activists also note the extremely cruel conditions for the “filtration” of Ukrainian refugees in the occupied territories. Activist  Pavel Lisyanskiy notes that lawlessness reigns there, and “people are treated harshly, cruelly, even criminally and can even be killed.” Those who do not make it through filtration, he says, are sent to camps inside Russia. Apart from this, the human rights activist mentions the problem of the creation of political schools “to re-educate Ukrainians,” or so-called “de-Nazification courses” on the Chinese model. In his words, physical force is used there, along with moral pressure and humiliation.

“I was told that during a denazification course some Russian escort or curator have a dispute: if someone did not agree. An argument would develop, and the person would simply be killed,” said Pavel Lisyanskiy.

New opportunities for corruption

Another thing that human rights activists expect from the Russian authorities in the occupied territories is the embezzlement of funds allocated for the restoration of infrastructure destroyed by the war. The media remind us that at the end of April the World Bank estimated damage to Ukraine’s buildings and infrastructure at $60 billion. Shortly after this, President Volodimir Zelenskiy cited a higher sum in the amount of $600 billion. Pro-Kremlin experts estimate expenditures for the restoration of infrastructure in Donbas, Kherson, and Zaporozhe districts at 4.5 trillion rubles. The money is supposed to be allocated from the National Wealth Fund and due to the high earnings received by Russia from the supply of energy resources.

It is impossible to predict the amount which actually will reach the allotted destination. However, for comparison’s sake, according to a report prepared by Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered shortly after, between $25 billion and $30 billion were stolen during construction of Olympic venues in Sochi in 2013.

Five years later, half a billion rubles were stolen from a housing project for the FSB in Sochi. This is just a small block on Gastello Street. On this occasion, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal case. In 2019, residents of Crimea complained that the money allocated for road repairs was also embezzled. It seems that no other policy, except for theft and repression, can be expected from the Russian authorities.