Collaboration, Theft and Corruption: How Russia Tried to Co-Opt Kherson

The occupying forces are appointing local sympathisers to run services and private enterprises in the southern region. But it’s not working out as planned. 

Collaboration, Theft and Corruption: How Russia Tried to Co-Opt Kherson

The occupying forces are appointing local sympathisers to run services and private enterprises in the southern region. But it’s not working out as planned. 

Village leader Dina, 62 enters a bomb-damaged auditorium in a town which was partially occupied by Russian forces until recently in Kherson Oblast on May 08, 2022 in Zagradivka, Ukraine. Most of the Kherson Oblast region fell to Russia shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion, as Russia sought to create an overland corridor from Crimea to separatist-held areas in the east.
Village leader Dina, 62 enters a bomb-damaged auditorium in a town which was partially occupied by Russian forces until recently in Kherson Oblast on May 08, 2022 in Zagradivka, Ukraine. Most of the Kherson Oblast region fell to Russia shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion, as Russia sought to create an overland corridor from Crimea to separatist-held areas in the east. © John Moore/Getty Images
Monday, 15 August, 2022

On July 5, Russian soldiers broke into a Kakhovka city council building at 6, Faina Gayenko street. The two-story building housed social services headquarters, as well as a centre for youth from the minority Roma community, the first such organisation of its kind in Ukraine.

Then the looting began.

“The centre’s property was completely destroyed,” said a Kakhovka city council employee who asked to remain anonymous. “All the employees’ computers, furniture and personal belongings disappeared. During the eviction, the trespassers terrorised and terrified people, they shouted foul-mouthed curses. It’s going to be very difficult to resurrect the work of the social services centre. In fact, the occupiers destroyed it completely.”

This was not a random attack. The seizure was personally supervised by a well-known Kakhovka businessman and philanthropist, Ihor Brzezytskyi. The 49-year-old is the co-owner and chairman of one of the city's oldest enterprises, the Kakhovsky Experimental Mechanical Plant, the founder of the local Lepta charitable organisation and head of the diocesan family affairs department of the local Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

Asked about his involvement in the July 5 events, Brzezytskiy confirmed in a social media message on Facebook and Telegram that he had initiated the takeover. He said that he recognised the Russian forces as the city’s legitimate authorities and that he had appealed to them to provide a building to house his Lepta charity, which collects funds for sick children.

Helped by an array of local collaborators, the Russian military has been seizing communal, state and private property since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, with numerous cases documented in the Kherson region alone.

Many pro-Russian figures have been awarded roles as self-proclaimed mayors, police officers, principals and other senior positions; Russians have been brought in to take over other sectors.

However, local resistance has meant this process has not gone as smoothly as the Russian authorities might have hoped. Despite issuing a steady stream of adverts for positions such as village leaders and school principals – not to mention the need to recruit teachers, cooks and cleaners - local residents generally boycott such ads. The Russians are now experiencing severe personnel shortages.

LOCAL TAKEOVER

Leadership roles have been relatively easy to fill. Former Servant of the People lawmaker and businessman Oleksiy Kovalev was quick to announce his intention to cooperate with the de facto authorities. In early July, the Russians appointed the 33-year-old deputy head of the new so-called Kherson government.

Kovalev was expelled from the Servant of the People party and an arrest warrant issued for him. A court in Lviv also ruled on the seizure of the corporate rights of all his enterprises, worth almost five million hryvnias (about 135,500 US dollars) and the capital of his Ukrainian news TV station Channel 4.

Deputy of the Verkhovna Rada from the Servant of the People party Oleksiy Kovalev, one of the highest-ranking collaborators in the Russian-occupied Kherson region of Ukraine.

Another notable figure is Eduard Repilevskyi, Kherson regional council member from the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life. The 58-year-old general director of Agrobusiness LLC announced his support for the Russian military in early May and began to force fellow farmers to re-register their businesses in occupied Crimea and pay all taxes there.

But perhaps the best-known is Volodymyr Saldo, mayor of Kherson between 2002 to 2012 and a member of the pro-Russian Party of Regions. The 66-year-old was brought in to manage the Russian administration of Kherson, but on August 5 Saldo felt unwell, fell into a coma and was taken to Moscow for treatment, where he remains on a ventilator. There have been reports that his mysterious illness was due to poisoning.

It is clear, however, that despite their prominent status, these appointees perform purely symbolic functions in the Kherson region, with the Russian military really in control of the occupied territories.

The so-called governments of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions are being managed by officials from Russian cities such as Kaliningrad, Moscow, Vologda and elsewhere, all under the supervision of the security services.

STATE PROPERTY

From the start of the occupation, the Russian military declared its intention to nationalise all state and private property in the territories it controlled – and immediately began to put this into practice, while appointing its proteges to head enterprises and institutions.

After the capture of the state-owned Kherson sea port, they appointed Andrii Kharitonov, head of the vessel section of the Kherson Shipbuilding Plant, as director. The Russians also announced the resumption of port operations and cargo shipment, although there has been no progress towards this.

After its post offices were seized, the state-owned Ukrposhta postal system was forced to suspend activities in occupied Kherson from June 30. The head of the Kherson department of Ukrposhta, Viktor Firman, then put pressure on postal workers to start working for the newly-created Khersonposhta system imposed by the Russians.

The banking system has also been targeted. Occupation forces ransacked branches of Privatbank, Raiffeisenbank, MTB-bank and Oschadbank in the cities of Kherson, Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka. In some, they opened branches of the Russian Promsvyazbank, currently under Western sanctions.

Other enterprises have been affected, from local wineries to recreation centres and national parks. In Nova Kakhovka city, Russian forces seized the alcohol factory belonging to Tavria House, which produces vintage cognacs, and installed their own management.

"They warned the director: if even one bottle goes missing there, they will be shot,” said Nova Kakhovka mayor Volodymyr Kovalenko, who escaped the region on July 18. “Apparently, our local collaborators told the occupiers that the enterprise has a share of communal property. So they declared that Tavria is now nationalised and will work for the city. Now Tavria is closed and kept under guard. They have their own departmental security there, Russians are also there.”

The process has even extended to social sectors such as care homes. In June, the de facto administration seized the council-run Kakhovska old age care home and took its director Vitaly Badrizlov into custody.

" Twice, they kidnapped his son, businessman Ruslan Badryzlov, and also threatened to take him away again,” said a care home employee, on condition of anonymity. “They demanded the electronic keys and access to the entire accounting department of the care home.”

The occupying forces then simply robbed the institution, the employee continued.

“They broke all the locks on the doors in the HR department and other offices, took out the computer system unit from the accounting department, took bank cards and passports from all the wards.”

Propaganda has been a key element of the Russian occupation. As well as numerous Telegram channels, the de facto administration is publishing several print newspapers –having appropriated a Kherson private printing house.

They have begun printing the newspapers Kakhovsky Vestnik in Kakhovka city, Chernomorets in Skadovsk, and Naddnepryanskaya Pravda for distribution throughout the whole region.

PERSONNEL CRISIS

The education system is another area of contention, with the occupying power attempting to appoint local sympathisers in senior positions.

Mykhailo Gonchar, Kakhovka city council member and former head of its education department, noted that the new principal of school No 1 would be Olena Tereshchenko, who previously worked only as a primary school teacher.

"She always wanted to lead something,” he continued. “But no thinking person thought of appointing her to a managerial position.”

An employee of school No 4 said that their new head was to be Nadia Antonova-Makovyk, who had previously worked as a psychologist at another Kherson college.

"When the self-proclaimed head of the education department of Kakhovka city, Iryna Makhnyova, came to present her to us, we asked if there was any order or any other document to show how exactly Nadiya Antonova-Makovyk was now the head of our school?” the employee, who asked to remain anonymous, continued. “Iryna Makhnyova angrily answered that there are no orders, but ‘if necessary, she will draw them and stick them to us.’”

Other new head teachers have dubious histories.

Ihor Demenko, 62, the new principal of Kakhovka school No 3, previously worked as the director of school No 5 until he was fired for corruption after a 2019 court ruling that he had illegally employed and paid his relatives.

The new head of the de facto regional education department, 54-year-old Tetyana Kuzmich, was charged with treason two years ago by the security services. She was released on bail, but Russian invasion began before a court decision.

Education is a key sector where, despite the willingness of local sympathisers to work with the occupation authorities, the Russians still have a huge problem with recruitment.

Despite repeatedly announcing that specialists from Russia were arriving to work in the Kherson region, Russians do not seem keen to relocate to the turbulent occupied territories amid active hostilities.

For example, the Ukrainian Centre for National Resistance, part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, reports that only 250 teachers from Russia have been recruited to work in the occupied territories. This is a negligible number that will staff just a few schools.

According to an official announcement, just 28 schools in the Kherson region will re-open for the new school year on September 1 – out of a pre-war total of 457.

In the Kakhovka region, for instance, only four out of 11 schools will re-open.

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

Ukraine Voices
Ukraine
Regime, Conflict, Life
Support our journalists