Occupied Ukrainian cities face a stark choice: collaborate or resist?
Even in Kherson, the first regional center seized by Russian forces, local authorities remained in place. The city’s mayor, Ihor Kolyhaev, confirmed on his Facebook page on March 2 that the Russian military had gone to the city council to talk to him. He claims of having concluded nothing with them: “I promised them nothing. I’m only interested in the normal functioning of the city. I asked them not to shoot at the townspeople. Following a March 5 rally in Kherson in support of Ukraine, Mayor rented local residents for refusing to receive any humanitarian aid from Russian forces: “I am proud of you, Kherson! Kherson is the heroic city. Kherson is Ukraine.
Thus, while Ukrainian municipal authorities in occupied cities continue their operations, their public expressions of defiance indicate that they have not crossed the threshold of collaboration. This categorization, however, would change the moment one of the mayors begins to accept direct orders from the Russian occupying forces or agrees to replace the symbols of the Ukrainian state with those of the occupier.
The nature of Ukraine’s municipal response to the Russian occupation so far, and its comparison with the 2014 uprising in the Donbass, allow five key conclusions to be drawn.
First, the Russian military invasion lacks a well-planned political and administrative dimension. Russian forces can deploy their armored vehicles around central squares and station soldiers around the city, but there is no one to support them administratively. None of the key local officials has yet embraced the Russian narratives of the invasion’s goals. No local official, with very few exceptions, has agreed to recognize Russia’s sovereign control over the cities.
Second, unlike in 2014, the Russian military has largely avoided removing symbols of Ukrainian state power from occupied cities. Ukrainian flags still fly above local government buildings. The tactical calculus behind this approach may be to signal that the Russians in fact do not plan to annex these cities and make them a permanent part of the Russian state. This suggests that Putin’s overall political goal may well be their merger into a new quasi-Ukrainian political territory under Russian military tutelage. However, neither the contours of this new territory nor its ideological foundations have yet been articulated.
Third, in order to maintain their military occupation of Ukrainian cities, the Russians must ensure that Ukrainians remain responsible for their day-to-day operations. This means that Russian forces should either tolerate an open expression of defiance from mayors or find lower-level bureaucrats who could take the reins of municipal governance. By ignoring opposition from mayors, however, they could face a growing public mobilization against the occupation, supported by local authorities, which has already been visible in Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk and other cities.
These public expressions of opposition to the Russian military presence undermine the very premise of the invasion. By contrast, co-opting loyalists into local government structures could backfire if their authority is challenged by lower-level officials and the public, sparking further disobedience.
Fourth, the legitimacy of local mayors places them at the center of nonviolent symbolic resistance to the Russian occupying forces. They can speak credibly on behalf of the whole community, formulate demands and serve as focal points for the coordination of the townspeople. They also symbolize the continuity of Ukrainian sovereignty over these localities, and therefore the persistence of the Ukrainian state there, despite the Russian military presence. The tenuous nature of Russian claims to control Ukrainian cities is revealed with each new act of defiance by city authorities.
Finally, if the Russian military occupation continues, it could at some point force local authorities to make a choice between going along with Russia’s political goals or stepping down. Then the dilemma of involuntary collaboration that Stanley Hoffman described in the case of Vichy France would become particularly clear.
Some local leaders might justify their continued work under Russian control by referring to the good of the community. Some may see this involuntary collaboration as a lesser evil compared to the breakdown of communal services and the provision of social payments which, if they quit, could affect their most vulnerable residents.
However, as Hoffman points out, any kind of collaboration would only “aggravate the immediate, certain, and tangible ills” of the occupying regime, such as violence and repression. The end result would mean the end of all material benefits of collaboration and possible reputational damage to local officials.
This is what the Russian occupying forces can count on, which today silently tolerate the challenge of local mayors. And that is why the local Ukrainian authorities will be particularly sensitive to the question of whether their continued cooperation will cease to benefit local residents – and will begin to strengthen the Russian occupation.