Author: Kristina Berdynskykh
Ukraine’s south has been one of the key targets of Russian invasion since February, and some territories there were occupied during the early stage of the ongoing, full-scale war. Russia claims it controls major parts of southern Ukraine, but this control can be hardly called sustainable.
For instance, in Kherson, the Russians haven’t managed to hold a so-called “referendum”, a forced political action aimed at getting at least some local legitimacy, though they planned to have it as early as April 27. Russia’s intention to introduce their own currency – rubles – for commercial use here didn’t find any purchase.
Kherson has its own Ukrainian life under Russian occupation. Nearly every day, one can read headlines about local collaborators spontaneously combusting in their cars. Some get only slightly injured, like Oleksiy Kovalyov, a former MP with the presidential Servant of the People party. Others are less lucky: on June 24, Dmytro Savluchenko paid for his participation in the Russian so-called “Kherson administration” with his death.
Ukrainian media has been publishing various versions of what’s going on with the Ukrainian insurgency in the south – mentioning local partisans as well as general criminal unrest.
NV interviewed an executive from the National Resistance Center, focusing on the Ukrainian insurgency against the Russian invasion. This is a government-run organization backed by the Special Operation Forces of Ukraine, for supporting those who live in the occupied territories and are willing to fight for liberating their homeland.
NV: What are the typical methods for resistance in Ukrainian territories that are temporarily occupied by the Russian army?
NRC: Let’s start with what we see daily on the streets – placards, drawing, graffiti. These are the simplest elements for creating psychological and moral pressure on the enemy forces. How does this work? Let’s imagine this Russian Ivan who’s wandering around Kherson in May or June, doing the regular stuff. And then he reads the news – such and such burned to death after a bomb attack in Kherson.
Meanwhile, this Russian Vanka sees a million pro-Ukrainian leaflets around the city. Well, maybe not a million, but a lot of them. They say: “Glory to Ukraine’s Armed Forces!”, “Death to our enemies!”, “Glory to Ukraine!”, “Russian soldier, we know your routes”, “Russian soldier, watch your back”.
Therefore, Ivan’s morale gets to a critically low level. We see this and we have the essential results: Russian soldiers are not motivated to fight at all. This includes all kinds of civil resistance. Vanka sees threats around him all the time, and starts having this special type of war paranoia. He keeps thinking about this, and gets worried. This is why the leaflets are so important.
NV: How do Russian invaders react to the pro-Ukrainian leaflets? Are they trying to respond aggressively – through repressions against the local population, through raids against partisans?
NRC: Russian counter-sabotage policy has its own grades of severity, based on the opportunities they have. During the first weeks of the invasion, they were really, really aggressive. Take March, when the cities in Ukraine’s south had these massive protests against the invasion. Thousands of people attended. So the very first thing Russians did was physical punishment of protest participants – they were beaten up, shot at, and scared in many ways.
The next stage included search warrants for opinion leaders – local patriots and community activists who were able to organize people for pro-Ukrainian action. Most of these opinion leaders were warned to leave the territory and stay somewhere safe, so they would be able to coordinate their audience while physically staying in a different region of the country. Some did evacuate, but some became victims of Russian aggression.
However, the Russian occupiers don’t have as many resources as they need. We have created a number of guiding principles [for organizing resistance] that can be printed out and spread around. We prioritize the safety of people involved in this. This is why we explain: take care of any digital footprint your resistance activities may leave on your computer or on your phone, make sure you don’t have paint over your hands after putting up patriotic graffiti on a wall. Russians shouldn’t be able to obtain any evidence on Ukraine’s southern insurgency.
Again, why do we think that leaflets are important? The Russian invaders don’t have any support from the local utility services, who do a critically important job. Russians tell them to take away all the leaflets, but the utility workers don’t really obey to these orders.
That’s why the Russians organized several street actions to promote their own version of invasion: they hired some volunteers who are willing to draw Russian flags on the walls and are satisfied with a penny paid for this. That’s the only option that Russians have right now,
NV: How do Ukrainian cities organize their resistance under the occupation regime?
NRC: Let’s take Melitopol. This city has a huge community of railway workers who refuse to cooperate with the invaders. Some left the city, some just don’t go to work, and some refuse to sign any documents with the Russian administration. In addition, local students are also participating in resistance activities.
The Russians merged two local colleges – the Melitopol Pedagogical Institute and the Tavria University for Agriculture Technologies, and now say it’s a Russian university. Do you remember the way Russians were creating their TV propaganda in Donbas and Crimea in 2014?
They used people’s ignorance and they claimed this enormous degree of support among the locals. As of now, they don’t have even a fraction of this support. None of the students attend that so-called “university”. They ignore it. We saw this video on Russian TV that showed a lecturer at this “university” who didn’t have any students in his class. So, Russians are not even able to produce a TV version of their invasion in the way they want it to look.
That’s why in Melitopol, Berdyansk, and Kherson, the Russians are going ahead with their policy of issuing passports to artificially create these lines of locals who stand in a queue to get a Russian passport. If anyone there needs social support, he or she is forced to accept Russian citizenship.
But this doesn’t work too, because people refuse to take Russian passports. All these pseudo-referendums, all these attempts to introduce the Russian currency, with Russian legislation are now planned for autumn – they don’t work now. The occupiers are pressuring the local population, behaving like terrorists, and creating these complicated life choices for people.
But the local residents don’t play these games, they keep resisting – and the Russian are losing their moral argument. They are not able to exercise the order they’ve received from Moscow to convert Kherson residents to Russian citizenship.
Let’s take another case in Kherson. Yevhen Sobolev, a local collaborator who used to be a director for the 90th Penitentiary Facility, tried to force inmates to take Russian passports – but they refused.
Later, Sobolev’s car exploded on the street. It was an Audi. At this prison, inmates were told: either you take Russian citizenship or you will face severe physical punishment. Probably, the Russians are so unsuccessful at distributing Russian passports that the inmates of the 90th prison were their only option. With civilians, it’s even harder.
Then, the Russians also have problems cooperating with local healthcare workers. They can’t find doctors in Kherson who would work in the occupied territories. Doctors in Kherson refuse to sign any documents with the occupation administration, choosing to have their own private practice. The medical staff doesn’t want to work within the Russian legislative framework – instead, they visit their patients at their homes and do a lot of community work.
Introducing rubles, Russian currency, hasn’t worked either. As of June, even Russian soldiers keep using Ukrainian currency for their needs. They can’t buy anything with rubles, so the hryvnia is so much easier for commercial use.
To improve this situation, which is continuously worsening, since most locals don’t want to cooperate with the Russian administration, the Russians started relocating their own bureaucracy to Ukraine’s south to organize the work of the municipal services, the railroad, and schools.
In Kherson, only 2 out of 60 school directors agreed to collaborate with the Russian. In the city of Enerhodar, school teachers went on a protest and went on with teaching their lessons in accordance with the Ukrainian educational program.
NV: Many people have been evacuated from the occupied territories. These are mostly pro-Ukrainian citizens, young people. But we see the resistance going on. Who is resisting? Civilians?
NRC: We are really proud of this. These are our people. In the beginning, we put a lot of effort into spreading information, teaching resistance methods, explaining everything. Among all the resistance activists in the south, 10% were educated by us – and this group initiated all further activities. This is a network that is efficient and is able to produce results. We have our people there, but the resistance is much, much wider.
It’s not that we, as a military organization, coordinate everything. Locals do a lot of volunteering. During the spring months, when it was easier to talk to people in terms of having a phone connection, we were providing as much information as possible for educating the resistance activists. Now, we’re trying to overcome the information blockade which was created by the Russians in the south, and to keep our communication policy there sustainable.
NV: Sometimes, I talk to people from the occupied territories who think Ukraine’s left them behind. They feel like we’ve forgotten about them and their needs, while each month of living under occupation brings new challenges.
NRC: It’s extremely important to receive feedback from people who live under the occupation regime. Of course, they’re asking for attention to them and their needs. We need to pay attention to them. We’re doing our best to tell everyone about their people and we also talk to them directly.
Now I’d like to call on everybody: let’s talk about these heroic cities who live under occupation. This is something that all the civilians who live in relative safety are able to do, and this is needed for moral support for the residents of southern Ukraine. It’s also important for resistance.
NV: What kind of logic do collaborators have? Most of the explosions [in the south] affected local collaborators, not Russian servicemen. Do these collaborators ask for better security measures? How do they feel about the situation?
NRC: They’re panicking and suffering from emotional distress. Take Melitopol. They had a local administrator who was cooperating with Russians – Halyna Danylchenko. On May 31, she said she wouldn’t be doing any administrative work anymore [after her car was set on fire a day earlier].
All of their collaborators said they don’t want to work anymore. But, again, the Russians are trying to scare these people: if you don’t want to cooperate, we will let the Ukrainian special services arrest you. Collaborators are not as loyal to the Russians as they want them to be.
They have all kinds of personal fears, so the Russian invaders have to put more pressure on them. In the beginning, those who were loyal to Russia were sort of happy about the developments – they liked these mottos: “Glory to Russia”, “We will build the Russian world here”.
But when they saw the results of their own actions, when they faced all the threats – they decided to step back. For them, it would be better to surrender to the Ukrainian special services and ask for a fair trial in the Ukrainian courts. Otherwise, they might be assassinated by Russian special services or by the Russian army. Russians won’t be relocating them to live in the city of Rostov, like they did to Viktor Yanukovych [Ukraine’s president from 2010-2014, who fled to Russia].
NV: On your website, there’s a document with guidelines for those who are forced to join the Russian army. This document talks about the best ways to surrender to the Ukrainian army. I think this mostly has to do with men drafted in the so-called “Donbas republics”. How effective are your policies to prevent the forced mobilization of Ukrainian citizens to the Russian army?
NRC: Ukraine has several government-run organizations for registering and analyzing the cases of those who surrender. Our goal is to spread this information to our audience, let’s put it this way. What we can say is this: in June, this web page became the most popular one among people who use internet in Ukraine’s east, in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. The residents of areas neighboring Donetsk, 75 kilometers around it, are the most frequent visitors: many clicks, many views.
As of the end of June, the so-called Donbas republics have somewhat decreased their mobilization efforts. They don’t have too many people willing to serve in the military. And more, their economy isn’t working very well, with industrial facilities halting their operations. Now, after the forced mobilization, they have entered a deep economic crisis.
That’s why recruitment is much slower now. People are scared to serve in the army, to fight against Ukraine. They have so much negative news to read to get that feeling. For instance, at first, they were promised they would just be carrying out basic security service on the roads, which would be 40 days long, and afterward, they could go back to their cities, their places of residence where they can have their usual lifestyle.
But what really happened is after a month of guarding the roads they were deployed to combat zones. These people started to protest against this, most were punished by Russian military authorities, and some were arrested and detained.
NV: In Kherson, local collaborator Kyrylo Stremousov keeps saying that the city will finally have its pseudo-referendum to join the Russian Federation. Is this going to happen in autumn?
NRC: Yes, on September 11.
NV: What is our plan to prevent this?
NRC: We’re working hard to prevent the distribution of Russian passports. The ratio is still very low, but we can’t count on locals to keep resisting endlessly. This is why our goal is to ruin this whole process, so people wouldn’t have to take Russian citizenship and the Russians won’t get access to their personal data.
Many agencies within our government have deleted all the personal data on Ukrainian citizens which might be used by Russians. Therefore, Russians have to get this date in their own way, threatening and terrorizing people. For example, they make phone calls, say this is a “sociological poll”, and keep asking personal questions.
Some are offered money to provide personal data. In Kherson Oblast, Russians are willing to pay 10,000 rubles [$175 by the Russian official rate, which may be manipulated, according to the U.S. Department of State] to those individuals who agree to take Russian citizenship.
So our goal is to prevent all of this. We want to create the perfect conditions for our servicemen, for Ukraine’s Armed Forces to liberate these territories, to liberate the Ukrainian south – and things will finally run normally there.