Back in the USSR: how Ukrainian south lives under occupation

Back in the USSR: how Ukrainian south lives under occupation

How citizens survive in the occupied territories and what happens with business

Цей матеріал також доступний українською
Back in the USSR: how Ukrainian south lives under occupation

Russia already has to remove equipment of the fifties from the preservation in order to replenish reserves in the Slobozhansky direction. And this makes clear that the strategy chosen by the Ukrainian General Staff to exhaust the enemy pays off.

In particular, it allows Ukrainians to gain the time needed to reconcile the calculations of the new Western artillery and replenish the critical arsenal.

Behind the front line, which has remained virtually unchanged for the past two months, there are still numerous agglomerations and economic resources of Sloboda Ukraine and Donbass, as well as almost the entire Kherson region, part of Zaporizhzhia and the Azov region, which form a land logistics corridor between Crimea and Donbass.

As a result, Ukraine lost control of two key port hubs in the Sea of ​​Azov, Berdyansk, and Mariupol, which covered a quarter of Ukrainian grain exports before the war.

Occupation and destruction of infrastructure in Mariupol is a special pain in both social and economic terms. In addition to the two metallurgical giants, Azovstal plant and Illich Steel and Iron plant, which produced at least a third of Ukrainian steel, Mariupol also had high-precision production enterprises focused on global exports. For instance, Ingas company, which specialised in the production of neon, an inert gas was critical for the microchip industry.

Due to the shutdown of two Ukrainian neon plants – in Mariupol and Odesa, which is now in the zone of missile attacks, world prices for this component of high-precision electronics have increased tenfold. Even today, this already affects the cost of not only hi-tech but also household appliances based on modern microchips.

The Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant and Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Enerhodar, one of Ukraine's four operating nuclear power plants, are in the occupation zone. Electricity generation works in normal mode, however, in addition to Ukrainian personnel, it is constantly occupied by Russian nuclear scientists.

They are primarily interested in the technologies of the Westinghouse concern – all our stations were switched to American nuclear fuel in 2015, which is almost a quarter more efficient than the Russian one,” said a specialist from one of the Ukrainian institutes of nuclear energy research.

Perhaps the greatest damage the war caused to the agro-industrial complex of Ukraine. This is not just about the famous chernozems on the border of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which make up 30% of Ukraine's arable potential, but also about a huge agricultural fund in the Kherson region. Up to half of the national seasonal production of vegetables and fruits, and 90% of the melon crops were traditionally grown there.

Even in the front-line zone where Ukraine retains control, agro-technical work is extremely difficult due to the Russian “seeding” of these areas with anti-tank mines and cluster munitions. The degree of contamination of the territory of Ukraine with explosive objects is clearly presented by colleagues from the Texty project.

War communism in practice 

According to the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, almost one million people involved in agricultural production in the occupation zone are currently unable to cultivate their land or dispatch agricultural products to processing companies. They suffer not only market losses, but also systemic looting by the occupation administration.

According to the Chief Directorate of Intelligence, in some areas of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, the Russian administration has announced the restoration of collective farms. In the best traditions of war communism and expropriation. When in one of the farms one owner refused to “join” the collective farm, having said that the equipment was rented and he had to feed his family, an APC drove up to his house at night and simply smashed it. However the farmer survived, and thanks to him this incident became known. But there were other protests as well and unfortunately, they had more tragic consequences.

According to official information provided by the Chief Directorate of Intelligence, more than 1.5 million tons of grain were exported (i.e. stolen) from the occupied territories. Local bloggers have repeatedly recorded columns of grain trucks heading from the Kherson region to the Crimean Isthmus.

Maxar Technologies company has published satellite images of ships moored near grain elevators heading to Beirut and Latakia, according to MarineTraffic. Most of the data on parallel grain exports and ports for smuggling are systematised by our colleagues from the Texty project and updated live.

Last year, Ukraine produced 72 million tons of grain. Together with oilseeds – 106 million tons, while domestic consumption does not exceed 18 million tons. The rest is exported. In some Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, Ukrainian grain was estimated at 90% of all grain imports before the war. Sri Lanka has already defaulted due to critical food inflation.

Total looting on the right bank of the Kherson region led to a humanitarian catastrophe. There, the occupiers first devastated food warehouses and shops, then “took control” of the supply chains of medicines and fuel.

“Representatives of various law enforcement agencies of Russia, from the Federal Security Service and the National Guard of Russia to the commanders of the Russian troops, are earning money from this activity throughout the region,” says Sergiy Danylov, head of the Centre for Middle East Studies, which monitors the socio-economic situation.

To legalise the looting, the occupiers do not even take care of formal motives. “We live by the laws of goodness, truth, and justice. The police establish the laws of truth and justice. There is no more Ukrainian legislation, and there is no Russian one yet, so we are working sincerely and fairly,” states the so-called “deputy head of Russian regional police” Alexei Selivanov, explaining the moral imperatives of looting.

According to the Laws of Justice, Volodymyr Saldo, Gauleiter of the Kherson region, “took control” over the private network of ANC pharmacies and district pharmacies of communal property. There is special rivalry for control over the import of alcohol and cigarettes, which is dominated by representatives of Russian law enforcement agencies, says Sergiy Danylov, referring to his own sources.

The occupiers have already appointed an “owner” for the Danon plant, according to an investigation by the “Dzerkalo Tyzhnia”.

Local publics convey a visual atmosphere that is reminiscent of the 1990s with a priority in street trading and in some places natural exchange. Retail has almost disappeared, and in those small and medium-sized stores where there are still products in stock, Russian food and household chemicals predominate.

Their quality and range do not satisfy the local population. “Many people do not buy Russian goods imported from the Crimea. They are looking for Ukrainian-made products from warehouse leftovers. Several Telegram channels have been created for this purpose,” Mr. Danylov says.

Some of the service stations, restaurants, and cafes remain to work under their owners, as the occupiers take away production resources and property from entrepreneurs who do not work, he says.

In the field of pharmacy, there are signs of a real humanitarian catastrophe. Almost all pharmacy warehouses have been looted. “The self-organisation saves the citizens, who coordinate the delivery of critical drugs to particularly vulnerable groups via messengers,” says Tatiana Kumok, coordinator of the volunteer headquarters in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region.

“Medicines are sold on the roadsides, in car boot sales under the scorching sun. Or via special Telegram channels. To assure that the drugs are high quality, the postscript “Ukrainian” or “not Crimean” are made. If, God forbid, something serious happens to a person, all his relatives and friends will seek medicine in all parts of the city,” wrote a woman from Kherson, whose text is shared on Facebook by Natalia Vedmedyk.

Survive and not be arrested 

This is a very delicate issue. Any cooperation with the occupation administration, including the payment of “fees” that replace taxes, formally falls under the article on collaboration and betrayal of the homeland.

According to entrepreneurs, the self-proclaimed “administrations” force them to pay “tax fees” from 600 to 2,100 hryvnias per month, depending on the type of activity. The money must be brought in cash, having received from the “administration” the right to conduct business. Otherwise, the entrepreneurs are threatened by seizure of goods or by taking them to the “basement”.

Oleksiy Danyliak, First Deputy Head of the Kherson region Prosecutor's Office, explains this shaky line between conscious collaborationism and the desire to survive: “If a person acts in conditions of extreme need – it gives the right to release him from criminal liability. If a person comes to Gauleiter and declares that he is ready to serve faithfully by providing information about activists just to have the right to trade, then it is collaborationism in its purest form.”

However, in reality the line between forced and conscious violation of the law is very amorphous.

“In order to continue your business, you need to be sure that you will not be detained or your product will not be taken away at the nearest checkpoint, especially if it is such a high-margin nomenclature as alcohol or cigarettes. Even if it is not a product from Crimea, which is really impossible to import without breaking the law. In any case, we have to negotiate with local Gauleiters,” confesses one of the local retailers, who is trying to keep several retail outlets with almost two hundred workplaces.

As of mid-June, approximately 15% of businesses agreed to work under conditions set by the occupation administration.

Wooden money and hryvnias

Duplication of prices is increasingly observed in the retail trade network: the amount in Russian rubles is written with large numbers, and in Ukrainian hryvnias – with smaller ones. At the same time, the markets and the field of services almost exclusively use the course of the Ukrainian hryvnia, that's why the Russian military has to exchange their salaries in exchange offices.

Pensions and salaries in hryvnias are still paid out to retirees and public sector employees through the PrivatBank network. “We will be forever grateful to Privat. We can withdraw cash in bank branches, although the queues are huge. When our connection was cut off, the bank's support service found an opportunity to provide authentication of transactions without SMS,” said a resident of Kherson, a letter of whom Ms.Vedmedyk quotes.

A critical financial situation has developed in Nova Kakhovka, where digital keys from the accounts of pensioners and state employees have fallen into the hands of collaborators and are being used by the occupation administration to blackmail citizens, says Sergiy Danylov.

However, in Nova Kakhovka, the Ukrainian hryvnia remains virtually the only payment instrument, except for the dollar, according to the statements of local residents on social networks. Despite statements by Russian media about the inclusion of the occupied territories in the bi-currency zone on May 1, the circulation of Russian currency is not confirmed even at the level of small shops and gas stations on the administrative border with Crimea, which turned out in the ruble zone eight years ago.

Because of this, the Russian soldiers literally became beggars, because they do not have the opportunity to pay cashless in the Kherson region – due to sanctions of the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard laid on Russian banks, which charge salaries to servicemen. Instead, terminals work for Ukrainians. At least for now there is an internet connection.

Internet in the Kherson region is provided by local providers. “People remove passwords from home Wi-Fi so that neighbours can also use them. All Internet-connected institutions have removed passwords and reported about this on social media so that people can connect with their relatives,” locals say.

Instead, the occupiers have obvious problems with food: “They are constantly met in small groups in natural markets, where they try to sell or exchange something for food. But no one is dealing with them for rubles,” says Serhiy Mukha, who fled to the EU via Georgia just two weeks ago.

Kherson resident Kateryna Zasukha, referring to her own sources of information, says that Russian servicemen are often hired by farmers for melon work and strawberry picking – precisely on the terms of receiving salaries in hryvnias.

To go, or not to go, that is the question 

There are three ways to escape from the occupation zone in the south of Ukraine, and none of them guarantees the avoidance of a filtration camp or simply disappearance at one of the checkpoints, which can be located almost at every turn.

The route to Mykolaiv used to be the most popular way of escape in March-April. But currently, it is blocked due to active counter-offensive actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But there are still village roads and fords that can be used to enter the territories controlled by Ukraine on foot.

Now the route to Zaporizhzhia is the only possible way to escape by car if you luck out to “negotiate” at checkpoints by offering food, cigarettes, or alcohol. Otherwise, you will have to spend several nights in the car, waiting for a new rotation at the checkpoint, which will be more prone to negotiations.

Usually, people form columns of up to 200 machines and coordinate their actions on Telegram channels. Along the way, they share fuel, spare parts, medicines, and just information. There are also Crimean carriers that take people to the border with the Baltic states or Georgia for $600 per person. “But in the occupied territories such money is sky-high now,” says Serhiy Mukha.

There are no more direct protests, as in March and early April. “People are just being caught and shot. Many activists disappeared or became disabled after being tortured. One can only guess what is happening in the villages,” Mr.Danylov says.

Educational institutions in the occupied territories have been closed preventively. According to Mr.Danylov, none of the rectors of higher education institutions agreed to cooperate with the occupation administration. The situation is similar with schools. Out of 60 school headmasters in Kherson, only two have agreed to transfer students to the Russian education system and the Russian language and textbooks, Natalia Vedmedyk conveys the words of the Kherson resident.

In the Genichesk district, which was occupied on the first day of the war, no school has yet adopted a Russian educational program, although some schools have given in to the occupiers there. “But we're talking only about headmasters, not teachers in general. Those who abandon the Russian program receive threats from the commandant's office,” Mr.Danilov reports.

Due to this, the Russian media stopped announcing a referendum in the southern Ukrainian regions as they did in the Crimea scenario in 2014. “They did not get the number of traitors they needed to hold a referendum, they did not receive business support during the introduction of the so-called ruble zone. No support for handing out Russian passports. They don't even have enough people for the “positive picture”,” says Yuri Sobolevsky, the Deputy Chairman of the Kherson regional council.

According to Kateryna Zasukha, after the announcement of the simplified giving out of Russian passports, as many as 23 people in Kherson used that service – almost exclusively the city deputies of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party and their families.

What is the prospect?

The total area of ​​the south of Ukraine and Sloboda Ukraine occupied after February 24 constitutes more than 55 thousand square km. Together with the territories occupied in 2014, including Crimea, it is identical to the areas of the Czech Republic and Slovakia together or, say, Austria and Switzerland together.

The Ukrainian political leadership declares that not a single piece of this land will be left under the occupation, no matter what it costs the Armed Forces and the people of Ukraine. In early May, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech to the European Parliament: “The Ukrainian flag will return wherever it should be by right. Return together with a normal life, which Russia is simply unable to provide even on its own territory.”

These imperatives are still relevant, as evidenced, in particular, by the latest statement by Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov to CNN.

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