Russia is repopulating occupied Ukrainian lands with a mixture of the ambitious, the religious, and the well-compensated as it seeks to make stolen territory its own.

Kseniya Kirillova
February 8, 2023


The notorious [ https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1208 ] Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has announced the dispatch to the occupied territories of 300 qadis — judges who apply Sharia law, together with imams, “to make their contribution to the victory of our state over the servants of Satan.”

According to Kadyrov [ https://t.me/RKadyrov_95/3287 ], the first group has already completed training with special forces before being sent to Ukraine, after mastering a range of secular skills including “tactical fire training.” The exact function of these religious judges in occupied areas has not been explained, but 34 democratic states have judged  [https://www.gov.uk/government/news/human-rights-violations-and-abuses-in-the-chechen-republic-of-the-russian-federation-joint-statement ] the Chechen state guilty of “harassment and persecution, arbitrary or unlawful arrests or detentions, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.” It may therefore be fair to question whether Chechnya’s judges meet jurisprudential minimum standards.

The Institute for the Study of War believes  [https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-january-20-2023 ] that Kadyrov’s initiative may have the secondary purpose of establishing the conditions for the long-term resettlement of the Muslim population from the Caucasus to the occupied regions of Ukraine. Such movements of populations are long-established elements in the Kremlin playbook, as has been seen with the enforced removal  [https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/07/13/ukraine-russia-forced-deportation-antony-blinken/ ] of more than a million Ukrainians to the Russian Federation over the past year.

The dispatch of armed religious judges should not be surprising. In early fall, the exiled Russian media outlet Meduza published a lengthy piece [ https://meduza.io/feature/2022/09/06/osobo-tsennym-spetsialistam-zarplata-bolee-milliona ] stating that the personnel needed to govern the occupied territories had been lured with a mixture of additional pay, opportunities for promotion, and outright coercion.

The publication noted that since the beginning of summer, a massive number of officials from Russia have been appointed to leadership positions in so-called “civil-military administrations” in the occupied territories. “On August 18 alone, Vitaly Khotsenko appointed five Russian officials at once to various posts in the DPR,” the journalists reported.

In the Zaporizhzhia oblast (region), the former Vologda vice-governor Anton Koltsov became the “prime minister”, while in Kherson oblast the corresponding post went to the former vice-premier of the Kaliningrad region, Sergey Eliseev, Meduza reported. Candidates are selected from among the students of the Kremlin’s School of Governors, and graduates of the Leaders of Russia contest, with significant financial rewards for those selected. According to journalists, their salaries are two to three times higher than the Russian average. Specialists with skills in short supply can be offered a salary of up to one million rubles (about $14,000) a month.

Given Russia’s position as the most corrupt country in Europe [ https://www.eu-ocs.com/russia-remains-most-corrupt-country-in-europe-according-to-transparency-international/ ], there may also be less advertised opportunities for those controlling the purse strings in occupied Ukraine. At the end of January, Russian media confirmed [ https://topcor.ru/31492-megastrojki-donbassa-skolko-deneg-vydeljaetsja-na-vosstanovlenie-novyh-territorij.html ] that the “special infrastructure project” column included in the Russian budget for 2023-2025 refers to the restoration of the Donbas. Back in the fall, independent journalists found out  [https://rtvi.com/stories/rashody-na-vosstanovlenie-donbassa-v-rossijskom-byudzhete-mogli-zashifrovat-kak-speczialnyj-infrastrukturnyj-proekt/ ] that the cost of this project would amount to more than 377 billion rubles (about $5.3bn.)

As propagandists now note [ https://topcor.ru/31492-megastrojki-donbassa-skolko-deneg-vydeljaetsja-na-vosstanovlenie-novyh-territorij.html ], this is the biggest project in the history of modern Russia. More than 44,000 people [ https://topcor.ru/31492-megastrojki-donbassa-skolko-deneg-vydeljaetsja-na-vosstanovlenie-novyh-territorij.html ] are already involved in its implementation, along with several dozen private construction companies. It’s noteworthy that the author of the propaganda material praising the “project to restore Donbas,” Alexander Shilov, himself admits [ https://topcor.ru/31492-megastrojki-donbassa-skolko-deneg-vydeljaetsja-na-vosstanovlenie-novyh-territorij.html ] that the Russian economy “still has not gotten rid of the problem of corruption,” although he argues that the spending will benefit the country.” More realistically, given that one can only imagine the opportunities for theft, given that even in peacetime in Russia corruption amounted to [ https://www.svoboda.org/a/25001849.html ] tens of billions of dollars.

The declared number of workers allegedly involved in the construction already raises questions, given that back in April, Russian military correspondents showed  [https://news.rambler.ru/conflicts/48424058-bezoruzhnyy-natsist-poleznyy-natsist-plennye-vsu-vosstanavlivayut-donbass/ ] a video of Ukrainian prisoners of war rebuilding Mariupol. Back then, they merely cleared the streets, but soon the Russian authorities of Crimea offered  [https://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/6288ae039a79472325888916 ]  to send captured Ukrainians to work to restore the cities of Donbas. In response to this, at the end of May, the creation of “labor detachments of Donbas” consisting of the captured Ukrainian military was announced  [https://www.ng.ru/cis/2022-05-26/5_8446_cis1.html ].

In September, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the occupation administration of the Kherson region, who later died [ https://www.svoboda.org/a/schitalsya-gorodskim-sumasshedshim-zhiznj-i-smertj-kirilla-stremousova/32124458.html ] under mysterious circumstances, admitted  [https://svpressa.ru/war21/article/345581/ ] that some of the prisoners may have been “used in certain types of work, but media does not write much about it.” It is not known to what extent prisoners of war are being used in such projects. While it is legal for PoWs to be made to work under the Geneva Convention [ https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/en/ihl-treaties/gciii-1949/article-50?activeTab=undefined ], they are not paid, and this may create new opportunities for the theft of Russian state funds allocated for worker remuneration.

In addition to officials with opportunities for embezzlement, there is also a huge movement of enforcers to the occupied territories. Immediately after the announcement of the results of the pseudo-referendums in September, the Russian police and special services began to form  [https://ria.ru/20221005/siloviki-1821629168.html ] their own territorial networks in Ukraine. Information about what these units are doing can be gleaned from the data of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies involved in investigating war crimes.

For example, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the country’s counter-intelligence service, identified FSB officer Sergei Sinitsyn as the person who led Russia’s counter-insurgency raids in occupied Kherson oblast. According to the SBU [ https://ssu.gov.ua/novyny/sbu-identyfikuvala-spivrobitnyka-fsb-yakyi-koordynuvav-karalni-orhany-rashystiv-pid-chas-okupatsii-khersona ], the structure created by Sinitsin was designed to carry out mass abductions and torture civilians, as well as create an undercover apparatus for conducting reconnaissance and subversive activities in the region.

After the liberation of some occupied regions by the Ukrainian army, the number of enforcers willing to go to Ukraine has apparently decreased somewhat. This may explain attempts by the Russian authorities to send retired officials formerly with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the occupied regions. Russian media revealed on January 31 [ https://eanews.ru/news/pensionerov-mvd-nabirayut-na-sluzhbu-v-novykh-regionakh-rossii-dokument_31-01-2023 ] that heads of police in the Russian regions were tasked with identifying retired police officers who have not reached the age limit for service. Those refusing to go may be drafted. Contracts of at least six months will be agreed upon, with a monthly allowance offered as an inducement, in addition to their regular pension.

Taken together, the influx of Russians on the public payroll and imported workers amounts to a policy of replacing [ https://cepa.org/article/putins-paradoxical-population-programs/ ] the indigenous population with newcomers. Recall that such a policy has been in operation across the occupied Crimea and Donbas for many years. According to  [https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/features-russian-42173309 ] the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, in just three and a half years, 550,000 Russians and people from Donbas moved to the peninsula. The issue was repeatedly [ https://ru.krymr.com/a/zheneva-oon-krymskie-tatary-eskender-bariev/30062189.html ] raised in Geneva at meetings of various UN committees.

Similar policies have been observed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. According to  [https://www.dsnews.ua/world/gibridnaya-deportaciya-zhiteley-okkupirovannogo-donbassa-vydavlivayut-v-rossiyu-27072020-393522 ] local residents, employees were fired from their workplaces in massive numbers, forcing them to move abroad for work, and were replaced by newcomers from distant Siberian villages who dreamed of moving to a big city.

Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.