“For me, borders and state territories are not important, but the fate of the people.” This is a quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin from an interview with the German newspaper “Bild” in January 2016. At that time it was about the annexed Crimea.

In recent days, the head of the Kremlin is again violently changing Ukraine’s borders and annexing parts of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Cherson and Zaporizhia regions. The six-month occupation is now to be followed by the inclusion of the areas in the Russian Federation.

Moscow threatens to use all kinds of weapons, including nuclear weapons, to protect the new parts of the country. Ukraine and most countries around the world have declared that they do not recognize the annexation itself, nor the “referendums” that preceded it, in which a majority reportedly voted “for”. Who are these millions of Ukrainians living across the front lines and what will change for them?

The exact number of people living in the occupied territories at the time of the annexation is unknown. In any case, it’s about several million. Although the annexation is simultaneous, the regions are very different.

Forced selection has been taking place in the Donbass since 2014: hundreds of thousands, mostly young people, left the self-proclaimed “republics”, moving to Russia or to the Kyiv-controlled part of Ukraine. Old people stayed and those who couldn’t leave or who support separatism.

“For some, what they always wanted will come true. There are always certain sections of the population that collaborate,” says Andreas Umland, an expert at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS).

It seems that there are more of them in the east than in the south of Ukraine, but there is no exact data on this. Some in the Donbass supported the annexation, partly out of fear of having to answer to a court if Ukrainian state power returned, says Serhiy Harmash.

Born in Donetsk, he is the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Ostrow and was a member of the Trilateral Contact Group for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements. “These people will say they voted ‘yes’ because if Ukraine comes back, they have to flee somewhere, probably to Russia,” says Harmash. No one knows how many such people there are.

As in the occupied territories of the Donbass, social changes have also taken place in the south of Ukraine and in parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions in the six months of the annexation, albeit not as fundamentally so. Hundreds of thousands have fled, but among those who remain, there are many who continue to support Kyiv.

This is shown by protests with Ukrainian flags that took place in the first weeks and months after the invasion. “In Kherson and the Zaporizhia region, many people hate Russia, and in Donetsk and Luhansk people have been banged their heads with propaganda for eight years,” Harmash said.

Unlike Crimea, where two-thirds of ethnic Russians lived at the time of its annexation in 2014, their number in eastern and southern Ukraine is less than half.

According to the 2001 census, at the start of the war in 2014, the percentage of ethnic Russians was highest in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, at around 40 percent. In the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, it is around 25 and 15 percent, respectively.

At first glance, a formal annexation will do little to change life in these areas, which have been under de facto Russian control for the past six months. Experiences in Crimea give an idea of ​​​​how events can develop. It will be a mixture of a stick for the dissident and a carrot for the loyal.

Wages and pensions will probably rise and Russia will try to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure. The deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Sergey Kiriyenko, gave exact figures on September 29. According to him, 3.3 billion rubles (about 58 million euros) will be allocated for “support projects” in the new areas.

Everything that has to do with Ukraine will probably increasingly be replaced by Russian: laws, currency, telecommunications providers, language, education. One of the main goals is a return to cultural Russification of regions that the Kremlin historically considers its own.

The inhabitants of the annexed regions will have to make a choice: either accept the changes or resist them – at the risk of their lives. “These are difficult decisions. Many will be in despair because they cannot assess exactly how things will continue,” says Andreas Umland from the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies.

Because it is unclear how long Russia will stay and how quickly Ukraine can retake the areas. There are already reports of repression, arrests and torture of people who are sympathetic to Kyiv. Experiences in Crimea show that the persecution of those who think differently can last for years.

All men will face a special test as they will likely be drafted into the war against Ukraine as part of the Russian army. Perhaps the Kremlin also wants to reduce the risk of a partisan movement in this way.

So far, she has appeared in the south with several attacks on people who collaborate with the occupiers. But Serhiy Harmash believes that Ukrainian secret services are behind it. He does not expect a mass partisan movement like on Ukrainian soil during the Second World War, also because of today’s technical possibilities of persecution.

“Partisanship today and in World War II are different things. Today there is video and telephone surveillance. What we see is the work of organized groups run by secret services,” Harmasch said.

Ukrainians in the east and south will be tested in various ways for their loyalty to the new rulers, for example by handing out Russian passports. This was the case in Crimea and Donbass, where this process began years ago. But there may also be differences to the Crimean scenario.

Observers do not expect large-scale resettlement from Russia, as happened in Crimea. The reason is the ongoing fighting.

“There will also be no return of former Donetsk residents from Russia, where they are used as labourers, especially since there are no jobs in Donbass. The most important companies have been destroyed,” says Serhiy Harmash.

“The attractiveness of these territories for Russia will be low. The Russians will be afraid that they will have to leave again. That won’t work,” agrees Andreas Umland.

The question of who can form a new regional state power is still open. Will local Ukrainians run the annexed territories or officials sent by Russia? So far, the Russian occupiers have relied on locals, former members of the former pro-Russian “Party of Regions” of President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014.

Will he himself, his Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other fugitive representatives of the then Ukrainian elite in Donbass now return there? Experts do not exclude this, but do not believe that these people will return to power. In the meantime, new elites have formed that do not want to step down, believes Harmasch.

Perhaps the leadership of the regions will shift from Ukrainians to officials from Russia. The Russian press has already described such a development. On some levels this process has even started.

Autor: Roman Goncharenko

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The original of this article “What awaits the south-east of Ukraine” comes from Deutsche Welle.