Russian Occupation in Southern Ukraine: The Role of Military-Civil Administrations (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 115


Russia is fastening its grip on Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia regions through military-civil administrations (MCAs). Moscow employs MCAs as the main instruments of its occupation policy in southern Ukraine, quite unlike the familiar model of relying on local “republics” (i.e., Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea). The Kremlin took over those “republics” when they already existed or were rapidly forming; and Russia found many ready-made proxies there.

By contrast, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia in a full-scale conventional war, did not trust the local administrations and initially found few usable collaborators. Moscow has therefore undertaken to change these local administrations wholesale, subordinate them to the MCAs in both regions and appoint Russian officials to buttress local collaborators in these structures.

MCAs (voyenno-grazhdanskie administratsii) are defined as appointed organs of state power on territories under the control of the Russian Armed Forces. Under an ordinance (polozhenie) issued by a Russian interministerial commission in early March 2022, the two MCAs in Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia are the highest organs of power in both regions. These MCAs operate in coordination with the Russian military komendant (top officer in charge of civil affairs) in either region. The komendant appoints local mayors; but, once appointed, the mayors and local councils are subordinated to the MCAs (TASS, May 9).

The appointed MCAs should, presumably, pave the way for “elections” of regional and local administrations under Russian occupation. Meanwhile, the MCAs could be employed to prepare “referendums” for the separation of Kherson and Zaporyzhzhia regions from Ukraine and their incorporation into the Russian Federation, as Moscow is currently hinting at (see EDM, July 21, 22).

Russia occupies, since mid-March 2022, the entirety of Kherson region (several villages are now being contested) and 70 percent of Zaporyzhzhia’s territory, which includes some 50 percent of the region‘s population. The build-up of MCAs has proceeded slowly from March onward but has decisively accelerated in July for both regions.

In Kherson, the Russian military authorities removed the legitimate Ukrainian regional governor and legitimately elected Kherson city mayor from their posts on April 26 and froze those positions (along with lower-level ones). Instead, the Russian military appointed Vladimir Saldo as the MCA’s nominal head (glava), seconded by Kirill Stremousov, and Aleksandr Kobets as Kherson city mayor, all overseen by the Commandant’s Office. Saldo proceeded to beef up the MCA with officials from Russia.

Saldo was a three-time mayor of Kherson city and a deputy in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) with the Party of Regions but lost influence after Ukraine’s 2014 course change. His eponymous Saldo Bloc held only a few seats in the Kherson regional and city councils, both dominated by pro-Ukraine politicians and therefore dissolved by the occupation authorities. Saldo lost no time rallying to the occupation in March 2022, accepting the appointment in April and joining the first batch of Kherson residents to receive Russian citizenship in June (RIA Novosti, April 26, 27, June 11).

Saldo’s second-in-command, Stremousov (officially deputy head since June 20), hailing from Donetsk, was a blogger (Tavriya News), who advocated for the Novorossiya project and a “unified East Slavic state” of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Stremousov was a leader of an ephemeral pan-Russian party, Derzhava (“great power”), which never won a seat in an elective body. He ran for a seat in the Verkhovna Rada in 2019 receiving 1.75 percent of the vote, then failed to be elected to Kherson’s city council in 2020. Within the MCA, Stremousov is the most impatient and vocal proponent of a Kherson referendum, almost certainly irritating his Russian handlers who desire a more deliberate approach. His radicalism and loquacity has made him the most widely quoted Kherson MCA member, a worthy counterpart to Zaporyzhzhia MCA’s Vladimir Rogov (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 11;, June 6; Ukraiynska Pravda, June 14, 30; see EDM, July 21, 22, and July 28 Part Two).

Kherson’s new “mayor,” Kobets, is a former officer of the Soviet KGB and Ukrainian SBU, who went into private business sometime after 2005, lived in  Kyiv until March 2022 and returned to his native Kherson within days of the Russian occupation. The occupation authorities installed him after forcing out the legitimately elected mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, who was loyal to Ukraine (, April 29;, June 30).

On July 4, Saldo announced the decision to form a “government” in Kherson region, heavily stacked with Russian officials. The decision and appointments are undoubtedly those of the Russian authorities, Saldo is simply fronting for them. “This is the first government of the independent, non-Ukrainian Kherson region,” he declared (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 5). In many of the Russian Federation’s constituent regions, the regional government (a chairman and ministers) operates in coordination with the presidentially appointed governor. In Kherson’s case, however, the “government” operates as part of the MCA under Saldo’s purely nominal authority.

The head of the “Kherson government,” Sergei Yeliseyev, a native of Stavropol Krai (North Caucasus), was a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer from the early 1990s until 2005, a businessman thereafter, then deputy mayor of Vologda in 2014–2016 and a senior official in Kaliningrad Oblast. Most recently, he has served as first deputy prime minister in that region’s government (Kommersant,, July 4;, July 7).

Another Kaliningrad official, Vladimir Bespalov, has become the deputy chairman of the Kherson regional “government,” who is in charge of internal politics. Bespalov had served until now as the Kaliningrad’s first deputy prime minister responsible for internal politics and municipal development (Interfax, July 4;, July 7;, accessed July 25).

Mikhail Rodikov is the education “minister” in Kherson region. A native of Moscow region, Rodikov was the deputy mayor responsible for education of two towns in that region, then headed Sevastopol’s education department in 2015–2018, before returning to Moscow. Now in Kherson region, he regards his “main task is to adjust the Ukrainian school system to Russian standards … creating a school system there because the system is Ukrainian now. This will necessitate retraining teachers, introducing Russian textbooks and much more.” Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov visited Kherson and promised to help in this effort (Interfax, July 4;, July 5; Kryminform, July 4, 5;, July 7).

Kherson native Oleksiy Kovalev is deputy head of the “government” responsible for agriculture. An agribusinessman himself, Kovalev was a deputy in the Verkhovna Rada with the pro-presidential Servant of the People party but returned to Kherson following the Russian invasion. On June 8, Kovalev publicized on social media a concept to integrate Kherson’s agriculture with that of Russia (Leviy Bereh, July 6; Ukraiynaka Pravda, July 7; Leviy Bereh, July 6;, July 25).

This “government’s” composition is not yet complete; some additional appointments should follow soon. The “government” and the MCA, of which it is a part, look on the whole as a mix of local collaborators and Russian carpetbaggers, all under Moscow’s military protection. Their task is to transform occupied Kherson region from a part of Ukraine into one of Russia, making a decisive head start in advance of any referendum.