The US warns China against supporting Russia. UN estimates more than three million residents have left Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky says his country will never join NATO. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russia follows invasion with oppression and fake news

Firefighters work to extinguish a smouldering residential apartment building in Kyiv after it was hit by a Russian attack this week.
Firefighters work to extinguish a smouldering residential apartment building in Kyiv after it was hit by a Russian attack this week.
Credit: Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Under occupation

The southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, which has about 150,000 residents, was captured by Russian troops within hours of the invasion and was the first city to fall. In other parts of Ukraine, Russia’s advance has been slow and more costly than expected. But Melitopol, which has been occupied for about three weeks, gives a sense of how Russia plans to rule the territory that it seizes.

According to the Melitopol council, Russian forces quickly took over the city’s communication network, cutting off access to non-Russian media and intercepting phone calls by city officials.

Russia also reportedly released a fake clip in which residents were seen welcoming the Russian troops. Actually, footage on social media has shown that protesters in the city have held almost daily anti-Russia demonstrations, and have continued to do so even after Russian troops shot a demonstrator.

Last week, Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, defiantly declared on Facebook: “We are not co-operating with the Russians in any way.”

But Russia has stepped up its efforts to crush dissent.

Last weekend, footage from a local CCTV camera showed armed figures entering a building in central Melitopol and walking away with a man with a hood over his head. The man was reportedly Fedorov, who has not been heard from since. Russia then installed a new mayor, Galina Danilchenko, a pro-Russian councillor who urged residents not to destabilise the city or take part in “extremist actions”. A day later, footage on social media showed that the protests had continued.

The second city to fall in Ukraine was Kherson, which has about 300,000 residents and was seized around March 2. On Tuesday, Russia’s defence ministry said it had captured the entire Kherson region. According to a British intelligence update, Russia plans to stage a fake referendum in the region that will vote to form a “breakaway republic”.

In 2014, pro-Russian separatists held referendums in two regions they had seized in eastern Ukraine. The organisers said about 90 per cent of people supported independence. There were no independent observers and the European Union described the vote as a farce. A Pew Research Center poll in 2014 found 77 per cent of Ukrainians – including 70 per cent in eastern Ukraine – wanted to live in a united Ukraine.

China ‘willing’ to arm Russia

The United States warned this week that China had offered to provide military support to Russia – a development that would risk turning the war in Europe into a global conflict.

According to a report in the Financial Times, a US cable said China had “signalled its willingness” to send arms such as surface-to-air missiles. US officials told other media outlets that Russia had requested military support from China. Beijing dismissed the reports as misinformation.

On Monday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a seven-hour meeting in Rome with Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, warning that Beijing would face “consequences” if it supports Moscow.

China has refused to condemn the invasion and may already have provided economic support to protect Russia from the impact of Western sanctions. Chinese state media has trumpeted the official Russian position on the war and spread Russian disinformation, including Moscow’s claim that the US and Ukraine are developing chemical or biological weapons to use against Russian troops.

But China’s support for Russia has not been entirely unqualified. It abstained from United Nations votes and has insisted it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty. Yang told Sullivan Beijing “does not want to see that the situation in Ukraine has come to this point”, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

In early February, on the eve of the Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing and the pair committed to a “no limits” partnership. Four days after the Games ended, Putin launched his invasion.

Life in Ukraine

Russia’s military has struggled to seize territory on most of its fronts in Ukraine but has intensified air attacks and shelling.

For residents who have stayed in Kyiv, the capital, pre-war life has been replaced by a citywide effort – punctuated by the sounds of sirens, shelling and shooting – to prepare defences and keep the wartime economy running. Vitali Klitschko, Kyiv’s mayor, said the city had been turned into a fortress. “We are ready to be in civil defence and defend our homes,” he said this week.

Food and other supplies and phone and internet access were still available in Kyiv this week. Trains and several roads leading out of the city remain unimpeded. About half of the city’s 3.5 million residents are believed to have fled. The UN this week said that more than three million of Ukraine’s 44 million residents have left the country.

Elsewhere, in cities and towns that have been surrounded or occupied, conditions have become desperate.

In Mariupol, about 200,000 residents have been trapped for weeks – often without water or electricity in freezing temperatures – as Russia has encircled the city and blocked aid convoys. Bombs and shells have hit the university, a hospital and apartment buildings. Streets are empty. Shops are shut and have been depleted of remaining supplies. Aid workers said residents have been cutting trees for firewood and melting snow for water. Morgues are overflowing and about 2500 residents were estimated to have died by early this week.

But analysts said conditions in Mariupol and other surrounded cities could yet become worse, noting Russia has yet to unleash the sort of firepower it used against civilian areas in Syria or Chechnya. In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Russian troops fired up to 30,000 artillery rounds a day.

Olga Oliker, from the International Crisis Group, told NPR this week: “If you look at Syria, if you look at Chechnya, they could do a lot more damage. And my expectation is that they probably will.”

How the war can end

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday that his country will never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, marking a further sign he is willing to compromise on some of Putin’s demands.

Before the invasion, Putin insisted Ukraine be barred from joining NATO. He also wants Ukraine to accept Crimea as Russian territory and to recognise the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

During talks with Russia this week, Ukraine’s negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said that “there is certainly room for compromise”.

But some of Putin’s demands may be hard to meet, such as his call for Ukraine to be demilitarised; his suggestion that Ukraine’s government is illegitimate and must be replaced; and his demand that NATO remove all troops from countries that were former Soviet states.

It is unclear whether, or when, Putin would be willing to compromise. He may not want to end the war while the Russian advance remains stalled and his position appears weak, and he may want to show that he can withstand Western sanctions. Another obstacle is that, for diplomacy to succeed, Western leaders would need to offer concessions that allow Putin to avoid humiliation, even though they do not want to reward him. Writing in The Atlantic this week, the journalist Tom McTague said that the West, Ukraine and Russia should aim for a deal that “allows each to save its dignity – even though one side does not deserve to have its dignity saved”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Russia follows invasion with oppression and fake news".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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