Second, the international response to Russia’s invasion has been much more decisive: apart from widespread condemnation in international fora from the UN General Assembly to the Council of Europe and the OSCE, the West is supporting Ukraine militarily with some of the most advanced weaponry currently available and has imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia.
These differences account for the fact that after 2014, the Kremlin was able to pursue a gradual approach to entrench and legitimize its proxy occupation of the DNR and LNR, establishing them over a period of more than a year as de facto states with their own political, security, economic and social institutions.
In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, due to the presence of large numbers of Russian troops, combined with the military and economic pressures Moscow faces, this timeline is much more compressed and lacks even the thin veneer of legitimacy that Russia tried to create in Donbas after 2014.
Importantly, the different approach also reflects a fundamentally different objective now pursued by Moscow: instead of using de facto states as levers of influence over domestic and foreign policy choices, Russia is now aiming to maximize its security by establishing full direct or proxy control over geostrategically valuable territories.
At the same time, however, the methods used by Russia have generally remained the same as those used in 2014, which in turn were modelled on “state-building” efforts by Russian proxies decades earlier in Transnistria, some veterans of which were drafted
for Donbas by Russia in the summer of 2014.
Similar to the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk eight years earlier, the departure of local Ukrainian elites from Kherson, Mariupol, Berdyansk and Melitopol in the course of the Russian invasion has facilitated the transfer of power to local pro-Russian elites willing to cooperate
with the Russian occupation forces. This sets the scene for the implementation of various tactics to establish and consolidate full control over the occupied territories.
In the first stage, any local Ukrainian resistance is crushed
by brutal force, including civilian massacres. This begins prior to the actual occupation with the systematic and indiscriminate shelling of populated areas and is meant to instill fear in the local population and either force them to flee the area prior to the arrival of Russian forces or to submit to the occupation regime afterward.
This tactic was tried on the outskirts of Kyiv and in Kharkiv – as is evident from the atrocities in places like Bucha
and Irpin – but failed in both cases. Simultaneously, humanitarian aid from Ukraine and international organizations for the occupied areas of Kherson Region has been blocked
by Russian soldiers since early March, which has forced the local population into a growing dependency on Russian handouts of food and medicine.