Will Russia Create New “People’s Republics” in Ukraine?
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
A month into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has a problem: The expectation that it would quickly achieve regime change and forced demilitarization through limited engagements proved overly optimistic. Russian combat units are sustaining high casualty rates and equipment losses as Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” turns into a grinding war of attrition. As Michael Kofman noted in the most recent episode of the War on the Rocks podcast, for Russia to salvage any claim of victory, Moscow might be looking to revise its war aims downward. If Putin is contemplating how he might snatch some sort of achievable victory from his shambolic military campaign, he might be considering Russian-held areas in southern and eastern Ukraine. So far, Russia has adhered to its 2014 playbook to administer areas wrested from Kyiv’s control. If it continues to follow that playbook, Russia might establish new pseudo-states similar to the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” But this depends on how the Kremlin redefines its goals in Ukraine and whether it can overcome operational challenges that were not present eight years ago.
Looking at events in the Donbas in 2014, Russia’s occupation playbook can be divided into two phases. The first phase involved the replacement of elected officials with “people’s mayors” and “people’s governors” who took over local administrations until a longer-term governing framework could be developed. The second phase involved the proclamation of “people’s republics” that took on the trappings of state. Referenda on independence, despite being condemned as neither free, fair, nor legal, lent a veneer of legitimacy to the pseudo-states and their leaders. Concurrently, security services in the self-proclaimed republics took extreme measures to maintain order and suppress dissent.
Phase One Underway
In 2014, to govern the “separatist” regions that Russia and Russian-based militias seized in parts of the Donbas, “obscure figures of little-to-no political significance in the country or the region” began to establish their governing structures with Russian support and direction. “People’s governors” and “people’s mayors” were introduced during rallies held in the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk and in smaller cities where government control was eroding. Some elected officials opposing the transition were jailed, kidnapped, or murdered. The two pseudo-states were launched.
Is this happening again in the Kherson region? On March 11, 2022 a security camera outside the city hall in Melitopol recorded the mayor being led out of the building by a group of Russian soldiers. Shortly thereafter, a member of the city council appeared on the local airwaves, presenting herself as the interim mayor and declaring that a “committee of people’s deputies” was being created to administer the city. In Henichesk, Kherson region, the mayor was reportedly replaced by a participant in Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea. Additional detentions of local officials have been reported across the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, where Russian forces have advanced deep into Ukrainian territory.
As elected officials are being removed from power, organized efforts to impose a new form of government on southern Ukraine appear to be underway. The most significant developments have taken place in Kherson. On March 16, Russian media channels RT and Sputnik announced that a “founding congress” of new authorities had taken place in the Kherson region. A representative of the group declared that “the current regional government has actually ceased to exist” and that a structure is needed “that can take responsibility for restoring order.”
Meanwhile, efforts to control the streets continue. Ukrainian defense officials and local residents report that protesters are being rounded up and arrested by members of the Russian National Guard. Human rights groups have expressed concern about the rising number of disappearances of pro-Ukrainian activists and journalists in Russian-controlled cities. Russian soldiers have taken to firing at protesters to get them to disperse.
Will Phase Two Happen?
During the Donbas operation, many of the self-appointed leaders who were first brought in to govern the two pseudo-states were either arrested by Ukrainian security services or were removed by Russian operatives for getting ahead of their patrons in Moscow. What followed was the organization of illegitimate referenda to simulate public support for the “people’s republics” and the consolidation of durable political structures led by figures increasingly beholden to the Kremlin. Notably, on the eve of Russia’s invasion, the State Duma voted overwhelmingly to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” which gave Putin the pretext of sending forces into Ukraine to defend residents of the beleaguered pseudo-states.
Source: The territories controlled and claimed by the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” on the eve of the Russian invasion, with source indicated. (Image by RadomirZinovyev).
Is it happening again? Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently warned that Russian occupation forces were preparing to organize a sham referendum to declare a “people’s republic” centered on the Black Sea port city of Kherson, and a regional official in Kherson added detail to those claims. However, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the Russian government has decided to proceed in this direction.
Whether the Kremlin attempts to establish new “people’s republics” will be shaped by a number of factors. Foremost is how Putin redefines his war aims. As Kofman pointed out, Russia has overstretched its forces across three fronts, employing them foolishly. If Putin wants to claim some kind of victory in Ukraine, he will need to ratchet down his objectives. The areas recently occupied by Russia could be affected in several ways. For example, if Russia abandons its attempts to encircle and presumably bombard Kyiv and instead concentrates on southern and eastern Ukraine, Russia could attempt to take all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, rather than only those portions that the pseudo-states controlled before the war, and create a logistical corridor to Crimea passing through the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. That would require a mechanism to govern recently captured areas in the long term, and a “people’s republic” would be a logical means of doing so. Alternatively, as Kofman noted, Russia could use the newly occupied areas as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Kyiv, trading control over Kherson and other cities for other concessions.
Russia also faces serious operational limitations on establishing “people’s republics” in southern Ukraine. An unclassified report by the Estonian Intelligence Service identified two main problems: the persistence of protests and a lack of suitable people to lead new self-governance structures.
Regarding protests, residents of occupied areas are under no illusions about the consequences of Ukraine’s absorption into the “Russian World.” Most of the factors that provided at least a theoretical basis for local support for insurgency in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are of low importance to residents of southern Ukraine or are not applicable anymore. Additionally, Russia lost its main outlets of propaganda and disinformation in Ukraine during the early days of the Zelensky administration, undermining its ability to shape the psychological battlefield. The sum of these parts is a population that is hostile toward a Russian occupation and willing to take action against it. According to a February 2022 poll, 57 percent of respondents nationwide said that they would resist an armed intervention in their settlement, and more than a third pledged to take up arms — and the figures for southern Ukraine were almost identical to the national average.
The recent case of Volodymyr Saldo, the scandal-ridden former mayor of Kherson, is illustrative of Russia’s problems in finding suitable proxies. Saldo retains a significant amount of political clout in the Kherson region and may have been a top candidate of the Kremlin to lead its proxy administration. He was the most prominent member of the “founding congress” calling for a new governing structure in Kherson but, in an unexpected twist, he later claimed that he had been detained by Russians and forced to attend, and explicitly declared his opposition to creating a “Kherson People’s Republic.”
Russia has limited tools to address these operational challenges. It could increase arrests, harassment, and violence against local residents if occupation forces are unable to suppress protest turnout and bring residents to submission. Russian curators could also turn to fringe or unknown figures to take the reins in occupied areas, as they did in 2014. (Looking at the first cohort of self-declared leaders in occupied Donbas, previous governing experience was not a prerequisite. The first “people’s governor” of Donetsk dressed up as Santa Claus at holiday parties, and his counterpart in Luhansk was a businessman who reportedly worked as a driver for a pro-Russian parliamentarian.) They could also force residents to collaborate. However, it is the designation of new war aims that is likely to be the deciding factor in shaping what happens next in the Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine.
What to Do About a “Kherson People’s Republic”
Since Russia’s approach to governing occupied areas is linked to its war aims, any indication of plans to create a “Kherson People’s Republic” enables analysts and policymakers to make informed assumptions about the Kremlin’s intentions in Ukraine, and vice versa.
If new evidence comes to light that Russia will proceed with the enormous logistical task of holding a referendum and establishing a new governance structure, it suggests that the Kremlin plans to retain control over southern Ukraine indefinitely and that it believes that occupation forces can manage local unrest. It stands to reason that a similar body would be stood up in the Zaporizhzhia region, where Russian forces have also secured a foothold, as developing separate concepts for each occupied region would consume time and energy without any discernable benefit. While Russia would likely recognize the independence of these areas and sign “friendship agreements” allowing the stationing of troops there, as it did with proxies in the Donbas, it will also face significant logistical hurdles in administering these areas as separate entities. Russia may end up reviving its failed Novorossiya concept to ease this burden.
Should reliable indicators of Russia’s political intentions in southern Ukraine precede overt changes to its force posture, then Western defense and policy officials might assume that Russian forces will attempt to connect occupied areas north of Crimea to the territories controlled by its proxies in eastern Ukraine, and will thus push north in the Zaporizhzhia region to create a safety buffer for re-supply routes linking Russia, the Donbas, and Crimea. Russia would need to fortify the western boundaries of occupied areas in the Kherson region and establish a long-lasting defensive presence for the “Kherson People’s Republic” to be a viable administrative entity.
By contrast, it is harder to extrapolate Russia’s long-term intentions in southern Ukraine if there is no sign that it wants to establish new “people’s republics” there. Russia may be inclined to occupy the areas temporarily and might withdraw forces in the pursuit of a more desirable objective. Alternatively, Russia could be satisfied with a more direct form of military administration, at least for the time being.
Russia’s ability to maintain control over occupied areas is a prerequisite for creating durable governing structures and should not be taken for granted. Given the dynamic nature of the war in Ukraine, and the fact that the Russian advance in southern Ukraine has slowed in the face of stiff resistance from the Ukrainian Armed Forces and territorial defense units, the area of Russian control may shrink. Recent intelligence reports estimate that Russian casualty rates have crossed the 10 percent threshold that would render units incapable of carrying out combat-related tasks, making them vulnerable to a Ukrainian counteroffensive and raising questions about whether Russia has sufficient manpower to administer the occupied areas.
If Russia retains control over southern Ukraine and proceeds to create new pseudo-states there, Western policymakers should act decisively. First, they should support Ukraine in holding puppet leaders accountable and deterring would-be collaborators. The Ukrainian parliament recently passed legislation establishing criminal liability for collaborating with Russia. This should be bolstered by publishing dossiers on prominent figures in proxy structures, applying sanctions against these persons and their close relations, and supporting efforts to bring them to justice. In 2019, Ukrainian security services extracted a suspect in the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17 from occupied areas and hauled him before a court. Similar actions against those found guilty of collaboration or war crimes would have a chilling effect.
Second, Western policymakers should make occupation costly, both economically and militarily. Companies doing business in occupied areas should be subject to coordinated sanctions and asset freezes, but new efforts should be pioneered to limit the exploitation of captured industries and decrease administrative efficiency. Careful consideration should be given to actions that might affect food security in this agriculturally productive area. Third, they should support Ukrainians living in occupied areas by neutralizing Russian disinformation used to justify the establishment of new “people’s republics,” transmitting objective information into these areas, and keeping functional the secure communication platforms used to coordinate actions of civil resistance. Global leaders should also demand the immediate release of local officials, journalists, and activists who have been arrested or kidnapped by occupation forces in southern Ukraine and should pressure Russia in international fora to account for their whereabouts and well-being. These civilians are boldly standing up to the occupation at great personal risk to make Russia’s 2014 playbook unworkable.
Andrew Lohsen is a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. From 2016 to 2021, he was a monitoring officer and political analyst in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, serving in Mariupol, Donetsk, and Kyiv.