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Life in occupied Ukraine

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In occupied Ukraine, there is a quiet transformation taking place. Russia now controls some 18% of Ukrainian territory. And behind the trenches and the mines and the mortars of the ongoing war's battlefront, the Kremlin is working hard on many different fronts to incorporate these areas into Russian politics and culture. And with aid from the United States and Western Europe in doubt, some people are worried that these parts of the country could slip away for good. David Lewis is one of them. He's been keeping close tabs on what's happening in occupied Ukraine and recently wrote about it in Foreign Affairs. Lewis is a professor at the University of Exeter, where he teaches about post-Soviet politics. Welcome to the show.

DAVID LEWIS: Great to be with you.

DETROW: You know, we know a lot about the violence and the human rights abuses that are taking place along the front lines of this war, but you say that there is an administrative occupation taking place in the parts that have been annexed by Russia. What do you mean by that?

LEWIS: Yes. Alongside all the military, the soldiers, the tanks that you see as the images of occupation, there's also a whole army of bureaucrats that are taking on this task of really trying to incorporate all these lands into the Russian state. And that means transforming their laws, introducing new tax systems, the very sort of everyday bureaucracy of life, including weddings, death certificates, car registrations, health insurance, pension payments. All the stuff that the state provides is now being provided, obviously, by the Russian state. And that means a complete transformation of the local governance systems, the local bureaucracies. And that produces also a whole new range of levers for Russia to ensure compliance from the local population.

DETROW: And one of the details in your article is the fact that you need a Russian passport to access a lot of these basic government services.

LEWIS: Yeah. So quite incredible, really, roll-out of Russian passports, somewhere around 3 million they've rolled out since the beginning of the war to local residents. And these are given out without really much choice for locals because if you want to open a bank account, run a business, get welfare payments, do almost anything really in relation to the state, then you need a Russian passport.

DETROW: As best as you can tell - and again, talking about a lot of people here, so there's probably not one clear direction or another - but how is this being received by people who live in these parts of Ukraine? Is it just a feeling of, we're here, we're occupied, we have to go along? Are there any sort of signs of pushback in any sort of way that you can follow?

LEWIS: Well, of course, that's where the violence comes in. Any kind of...

DETROW: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...Pushback is met with extreme repression by the Russian authorities. Worth bearing in mind that a lot of people have left, so those who are perhaps most likely to be activists, most likely to be opposed to the Russian rule in some kind of very active way, many of those have fled these territories, particularly younger people, professionals. But then for most people, it's just a case of survival. I think, you know, there's not any great sort of upsurge of pro-Russian feelings, certainly, but people have very little choice. Not everybody can leave, and therefore, they're trying to simply get by and survive and hope that they see better days.

DETROW: So you have a lot of detail about the bureaucratic ways that Russia is establishing itself here. What about the education system? I thought there were a lot of interesting examples of that.

LEWIS: So again, Russia's intent, really, on sort of resocializing young people. Most schools in the region had gone over to Ukrainian language education. This is part of the country where quite a lot of people still speak Russian at home. But more and more young people have become, really, Ukrainian speakers over the last few years. Russia has put a stop to all that. All schools are now back on Russian language education, and they're all really teaching according to the Russian curriculum, which is a particularly sort of narrow curriculum, including a new Russian history textbook, for example, which describes the Ukrainian state as a state run by neo-Nazis. All the kind of falsehoods and propaganda that you get from the Russian state are now being taught in these Ukrainian schools.

So this is a huge change in education for young people. But it is a long-term strategy for Russia to reeducate the youth, to try and force them to adopt Russian sort of cultural, political and social views over time. And we've seen them be relatively successful at doing that in other areas, such as in the Donbas and, indeed, in Crimea as well. So they have quite a lot of experience in this.

DETROW: And you note that there's even a heavy hand in pop culture and arts in terms of what is allowed to be performed at live theaters, the movie theaters, what films they're playing. What is the larger strategy here? Is it to be able to make an argument that the people who live here feel Russian, or is it to change opinions over time so that if there were ever negotiation over the fate of these areas, Russia could say, look, these people are part of our country? Like, what is the thinking of the goal four or five years down the line?

LEWIS: I mean, the Russian - essentially, the Russian view is that they don't accept that these people really are Ukrainians. They claim that they are effectively Russians who've been, at various stages, sort of brainwashed into speaking or claiming to have Ukrainian identity. So Russians are trying to put the clock back, really, and change people's identities through these cultural, educational instruments. Culture is a very important one, and above all, it means imposing the Russian language. Ukrainian is really sort of expelled from the public sphere. And Russia has been very active at pulling down all sorts of Ukrainian symbols. Anything that really links the region to Ukraine or reminds people they might be part of Ukraine has been destroyed by the Russians in a very rapid and very brutal way.

DETROW: And all of this, of course, is happening in a moment when Ukraine is rightly worried about military aid drying up from the United States, from Western Europe. There's an increasingly hostile climate to more aid for Ukraine in Congress. I mean, here's the house speaker, Republican Mike Johnson, the other day at the White House after a meeting with President Biden about this.

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MIKE JOHNSON: We understand that there's concern about the safety, security, sovereignty of Ukraine, but the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security.

DETROW: How concerned are officials in Ukraine about - you know, given the stalemate of the war, the possible drying up of funds and all of this bureaucratic work to entrench these regions in Russia, how much of a real concern is it that these parts of Ukraine are just lost for good at this point?

LEWIS: Well, it is a genuine concern. I mean, Ukrainian officials really hoped, of course, that there would be a successful counteroffensive during 2023 that would really retake a large part of these lands - if not all of it, then certainly those that have been occupied since February 2022. But that has, of course, stalled at the front line. It is clearly quite difficult for the Ukrainians to break through the Russian front lines. So the longer this dispute over aid goes on, the more concern there will be in Kyiv about the extent to which they really have a realistic prospect of regaining these territories in the short term.

DETROW: That's David Lewis, professor at the University of Exeter. His piece, "The Quiet Transformation Of Occupied Ukraine," is out now in Foreign Affairs magazine. Thanks so much for joining us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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