Behind the front lines of the war, Russian forces are trying to ensure that the territory they have captured can never be integrated into Ukraine again, according to European intelligence officials.
In more than a year since the invasion, Moscow has entrenched its control of large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine by engineering cultural and demographic shifts through violence, economic coercion and the replacement of local populations, the officials said, asking not to be named discussing confidential material.
The goal of those alleged war crimes appears to be to eliminate the Ukrainian identity in the areas Russia has occupied, the European officials said. As a result of those abuses, Kyiv will need more than just success on the battlefield to re-establish control, they said. The Russian actions, they added, suggest little interest in negotiating over the occupied areas on the part of President Vladimir Putin, who vowed to secure victory at a military parade in Moscow on Tuesday.
Russian forces “are engaged in filtration operations, torture and extrajudicial killings,” Michael Carpenter, the US permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said by email. “Healing the wounds of war will not be easy.”
Kremlin officials have denied that Russian forces have perpetrated any human rights abuses in Ukraine while Putin himself has argued that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian national identity. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against the Russian president for alleged war crimes.
The European assessment underlines how high the stakes are for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as he prepares for a counteroffensive that could be his last chance to break the Kremlin’s grip on large tracts of his country.
French President Emmanuel Macron is already trying to lay the groundwork for potential negotiations between Ukraine and Russia and other European officials are starting to accept that the moment for talks may be approaching. Any appearance of support for Russian control in occupied areas will increase Putin’s leverage in any negotiations.
As part of his plans to cement Russian authority over parts of Ukraine, Putin staged referendums in September in four regions which were partly controlled by his forces. The ballots were declared illegal by the United Nations and Russia has failed to establish full control over any the regions and its troops were pushed out of the southern city of Kherson in the fall.
The Russian strategy involves the systematic repression, torture and murder of Ukrainian officials, and the deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, the officials said. The Russians have also conscripted Ukrainian men and forced them to fight their own people.
The effort to manufacture a culturally Russian population loyal to the Kremlin borrows tactics that were previously deployed in the eastern Donbas region and the Crimean peninsula after they were captured in 2014.
In those areas, the Kremlin has relocated many Russians while pro-Ukrainians have been jailed or forced to leave and the indigenous Tatar population in Crimea has faced restrictions on the use of their language and their political institutions have been banned.
In schools across the captured regions, those children who remain are taught a Kremlin-authorized version of history which eliminates their country’s distinct identity. That’s in line with the argument Putin made before the invasion that Ukraine is not a real country.
Putin says that the four Ukrainian regions are now part of Russia after their illegal annexations and that the local populations are loyal to Moscow. He has argued that the occupied territories are “historically Russian lands” and that Kremlin policies are aimed at undoing years of Ukraine’s efforts to instill its “pseudo-values.” Before the invasion, he argued that Ukraine was an artificial country created in the Soviet era, an interpretation that historians have rejected as unfounded. On Tuesday, he accused Russia’s enemies of seeking to tear his country apart.
Lyudmyla Huseynova was jailed by Russian forces in 2019 after bringing Ukrainian books to a school for orphans in her home town of Novoazovsk on Ukraine’s southern coast near the pre-2014 border with Russia. She says she was accused of espionage because of pro-Ukrainian posts on social media.
“I was imprisoned just for my thoughts,” Huseynova, 61, said in a phone interview. “They undressed me, they touched me, they threatened to rape me — a woman who looks like their grandmother.”
She said that younger women who she was in jail with were raped by the Russian guards. Huseynova said that the Russians tried to force her to vote in favor of Russian control during the illegal referendums before she was released as part of a prisoner swap late last year.
After months of training and arming Ukrainian forces with modern and heavy weaponry, allies are on alert for Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive, expected in the coming weeks. But some of Kyiv’s backers are growing skeptical the Ukrainian military will be able to make a decisive breakthrough this year because Russia’s defenses have had time to dig in. Officials also stress that Ukrainian forces have repeatedly surpassed expectations, including last year when it recaptured large swathes of occupied land.
Publicly, Ukraine’s allies have said negotiations should only happen on its terms, and have vowed to continue supporting the country with military aid. But some European intelligence officials are concerned that strains could emerge between Kyiv’s allies.
Macron isn’t alone in thinking talks should at least be considered. Asked about his efforts, Italy’s chief of defense Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone said at an Atlantic Council event in April that “anything which is changing this bad equilibrium we have over there is welcome and needs to be considered, no matter who is proposing it — anything is welcome.”
While attention during the war has often focused on the military dynamics, Russia’s activity behind the front-line is as just significant for the long-term future of Ukraine, the European officials said.
Its actions in the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia have been well documented, culminating in the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants against Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, accusing them of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine. Russia has kidnapped almost 20,000 minors since it launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Zelenskiy said last month.
However, European officials are starting to articulate fears about how difficult it may be for Ukraine to govern the occupied regions — if it can reclaim them — after months of Russian abuses designed to engineer support for the Kremlin.
The focus on indoctrinating Ukrainian children with Russian propaganda demonstrates the Kremlin’s long-term plans for the territories, the officials said.
In Kherson region, Russia has established at least 20 detention and torture sites where Ukrainian local government officials and protesters were sent, the European officials said. These torture sites have direct financial links to the Kremlin, according to a team of international lawyers investigating alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Ukrainians involved in administrative roles or civic society have been murdered, arrested or deported.
Huseynova says a friend of hers, Vasyl Kovalenko, a businessman, was killed for removing flags of so-called separatist Donetsk People’s Republic from public spaces. “Many, many people were arrested and are still in prisons just for having pro-Ukrainian views,” she said.
Last year, the OSCE documented direct targeting of civilians by Russian forces, attacks on medical facilities, rape, torture, summary executions, looting, and forced deportation of civilians to Russia, including children.
Moscow has also offered financial inducements to Russians to move to the regions, replacing deported Ukrainians. Those Ukrainians still living in the territories are being pressured to accept Russian passports, with residents in the occupied parts of Kherson region warned that anyone who doesn’t accept one by June will be deported and have their property seized.
Declining to accept a Russian passport can see Ukrainians in the occupied territories denied access to basic public services. But of those who do accept, some are being forcibly enlisted in the Russian army.
Yale University Humanitarian Research Lab reported in February that Russia is operating “a large scale, systematic network” of camps that has held at least 6,000 children from Ukraine within Russia-occupied Crimea and across mainland Russia during the past year. The camps appear to be trying to indoctrinate Ukrainian children into the Russian government’s idea of national culture and history, the authors said.
“Let’s call it what it is,” British Foreign Minister James Cleverly said in a tweet on Thursday. “Russia’s forcible deportation of innocent Ukrainian children is a systematic attempt to erase Ukraine’s future.”
—With assistance from Alberto Nardelli and Samuel Dodge.