Analysis: As its defence minister trumpets a key goal, Russia is pushing hard to subjugate areas of southern Ukraine it controls
https://www.theguardian.com-Russian service members de-mine the Azovstal steel plant in May. Mariupol was key to Russia’s objectives. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
The Kremlin is pushing ahead with attempts to consolidate its political, social and military grip on Ukraine’s south after claiming earlier this week it had established its “land bridge” to Crimea, one of Moscow’s key war aims.
The announcement by the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, was accompanied by the announcement that rail traffic to the border with Russia had been restored and at least one service had included trucks carrying grain taken from the elevators in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol to Crimea, which was cut off from the Ukrainian rail network after its illegal annexation by Russia in 2014.
Shoigu – who has been out of public view for parts of the Russian war on Ukraine – promised “comprehensive traffic” to and from Russia to occupied territory in Kherson and on to Crimea after announcing the repair of hundreds of kilometres of line.
The claimed restoration of some railway services, which have been targeted by Ukrainian saboteurs, comes amid a growing campaign aimed at cementing Russian social and bureaucratic control in Ukraine’s south in all aspects, from use of the Russian language to the local government system and passports.
Shoigu also said water was once again flowing to Crimea through the North Crimean Canal – which was cut off by Ukraine in 2014, although reports had suggested earlier in the conflict the canal was once again supplying water to Crimea.
The moves on infrastructure come as Russia has intensified its efforts to dig in in other areas it controls in the south, including the roublisation of the economy, changing mobile communications to Russian networks and issuing passports.
Last month the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree simplifying the procedure to get a Russian passport for residents of the southern Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which followed a similar 2019 measure for residents of the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, eastern Ukraine’s breakaway regions.
In response to the latest moves, however, the EU announced earlier this week it would not recognise the passports.
The Russian passport strategy had already resulted in about 800,000 people in the eastern Donbas region being issued with Russian documents prior to the 24 February invasion.
There have been claims – including by Ukraine’s former human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova – that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been “illegally removed” to Russia since the war began.
Mathieu Boulègue, an expert at the Chatham House thinktank who focuses on Russian policy and military affairs, sees the Russian announcement around the completion of the land bridge as aimed as much at public opinion in Russia around the war.
“Establishing a land bridge was a stated Russian war aim but let’s not put too much into the terminology. It’s all occupied territory. It makes sense militarily that the Kremlin would want to control the territory in the south. It will subdue it because can’t control it politically.”
That subjugation, argues Boulègue, is occurring on a twin track with the changing of school curriculums, the introduction of the rouble and new political structures, and so called “passportisation” being imposed in tandem with its military and security efforts.
If Russia now announcing that its land bridge is done is significant it is because it is a “mission accomplished moment”, he says, referring to George W Bush’s infamous speech in May 2003 onboard a US carrier that was supposed to signal a US-led victory in Iraq.
“It is major signalling, including the fact that it’s Shoigu who made the announcement. It is about propaganda: to say that everything is going according to plan.”
Boulègue also suspects that the announcement, as well as being aimed at the Russian public to suggest that the war is succeeding, may suggest a desire on the Kremlin’s side to move on to the end of the period of “intense war fighting”.
“It has to end,” he told the Guardian. “No army that size, and in such contested terrain, is going to keep fighting at so high an intensity for ever and inevitably there is going to be transition from movement warfare to positional warfare.”
Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST
While Shoigu’s announcement marked the official claiming of the land bridge, for some the fall of Mariupol marked the moment of its reality, with Prof Michael Clarke of King’s College London telling Sky News a fortnight ago that the land bridge was a reality.
“The Russians have now finished with Mariupol, they’ve got their land bridge,” he said. “The land bridge that runs from the Donbas through to Crimea and a little bit further westwards. And that land bridge will take some recapturing if the Ukrainians really want to push back in this war sometime later on.”
And that remains the key question: whether Ukraine can retake the captured south. Although Kyiv has launched a counteroffensive in the south around Kherson, so far it has had limited success.