The Role of Mayors During the Russian War in Ukraine

February 24, 2022, marked the start of what has become a never-ending nightmare for all Ukrainians. This day went down in world history as the start of the full-scale invasion of Russian troops into the territory of Ukraine under the auspices of the “special military operation” to “liberate” the Ukrainian people, and to demilitarize and “denazify'' it. Although Vladmir Putin claimed at first that Moscow’s plans did not include the paramilitary occupation of the territories of Ukraine, his actions showed the opposite. “Occupation of Ukrainian territory” has become a familiar phrase for many Ukrainians since the incursion into Crimea in 2014 and continues to be so.


As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in the Chamber of Deputies of Luxembourg via video message on June 2, 2022:


Today, about 20% of our territory is under the control of the invaders, which is almost one hundred twenty-five thousand square kilometers. This is much more than the area of all the Benelux countries combined (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg - ed.). About three hundred thousand square kilometers are contaminated with unexploded mines and ammunition. About twelve million Ukrainians became internally displaced. More than five million - primarily women and children - have gone abroad.


The inhabitants of Ukraine’s cities represented by their mayors, have become the first line of political defense. This matters so much because direct control over the executive power has been and is the starting point for Moscow not only to take over the region militarily, but also to control the political and business elite of the region, to initiate fictitious referendum processes, and to annex Ukrainian territories into the Russian Federation, providing the pretext for the claim that efforts to liberate them constitute an attack on Russian territorial integrity.


Ukrainian mayors have taken a lead role in three major ways. They have organized humanitarian aid and have helped direct aid from international organizations where it is needed, using their knowledge of the geography, infrastructure and population nodes in their jurisdictions. Second, Mayors have refused to collaborate or turn over the reins of government to occupying Russian forces, and have actively undermined such efforts. Third, some mayors have used soft power tools, including messaging, to encourage resistance by city residents. Sometimes that has included leaving a city to avoid capture; sometimes it has meant modeling cooperation with President Zelensky and the central government (thereby rejecting claims that Russia is the “real” government authority).


Mayors of Ukrainian cities began to create humanitarian headquarters and humanitarian aid coordination centers. The humanitarian aid was directed to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (special equipment, sports nutrition, medicines) and to fill the needs of internally displaced persons and those living in the communities where it is received. Most often, supplies included medicines, medical equipment, and food. Also, at the mayors' request, specialized equipment (ambulances or fire trucks) and buses were delivered from abroad to Lviv, Kyiv, Lutsk, Khmelnytskyi and Oblast.

The aid efforts by NGOs from around Europe have not always been well-organized, something Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi, pointed out to the working group on Ukraine of the European Committee of Regions (CoR) on March 30. Rafał Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw, which received a flood of refugees in the early days of the invasion, said that aid money needed to be directed toward central governments, refugees, NGOs, and local authorities to alleviate pressure on those most affected by the crisis. That mayors in both the sending and receiving communities in the migration crisis have worked so much in tandem speaks to a cooperation that is itself notable.


Beyond their role in organizing relief efforts and evacuations, the mayors of Ukraine have provided operational and moral leadership. Some mayors, not wanting to cooperate with the Russian authorities in any way, left their cities before the entry of the occupying forces of the Russian Federation. Among such examples was the Mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko. He said that, on the advice of the military administration, he went out to spend the night outside the city. He was unable to return the next day because the Russian invaders closed Mariupol in a blockade.


The Mayor of Skadovsk (Kherson Oblast (region)), Alexander Yakovlev, said that the Russian invaders gave him a clear choice: “cooperate or go to the basement” almost immediately after the Russian troops were able to fortify the city. After that, he left Skadovsk.


Some mayors, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the occupying Russian government, ended up in captivity. As of early April 2022, eleven mayors of Ukrainian cities were kidnapped.


The extraordinary moral courage of several mayors has been outstanding. Irpin’s Mayor, Alexander Markushin, said Russian invaders, threatened and offered a bribe to him to surrender the city. The Mayor was sent a message with a proposal to hand over Irpin, save life and health, and earn money. He was provided twenty-four hours to reply. Said Markushin:


I received a message from the invaders with threats to my life and health and the actual demand for the complete surrender of Irpin. I am surprised that these monsters have not yet understood - Irpin does not give up, Irpin is not for sale, Irpin fights! I am making a counter-public offer to the occupiers - to leave the territory of the Irpin community within 24 hours and save the lives and health of several thousand Russian conscript soldiers, who are waited for at home by their mother, sister, daughter, grandmother, beloved…


During a briefing by the First Deputy Head of the Main Investigation Department of the National Police of Ukraine Sergey Panteleev on April 18, 2022, central government authorities were informed about the end of operational and investigative actions in Irpin. A detailed chronology of the Russian Federation troops' military operations was established. 269 bodies of civilians killed in Irpin were examined, and investigators found seven locations where executions took place . At the same time, thanks to the coordinated actions of the Mayor of Irpin, together with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, by March 6, more than two thousand people were able to get out of the city, despite the daily bombing during its capture. Footage of evacuated civilians of Irpin, hiding from bombing under a destroyed bridge, appeared on the covers of all world magazines. On March 28, 2022, the Ukrainian military liberated Irpin from occupying Russian troops.


The city's problems did not end there. Mayor Markushin urged residents not to return to the city due to minesweeping operations and disaster cleanup. As the city gradually reopened in May, he led the disaster management operation, first opening a point of emergency medical care in the local clinic, then arranging to restore electricity and water supply through a temporary pipeline from Kyiv, with the subsequent resumption of communication.


These victories were matched by the soft power modeling behavior for other cities in the path of the Russian invading forces. Mayor Markushin and Irpin itself became an example for other cities of Ukraine of the invincibility of the Ukrainian will to freedom even at the cost of their lives. The mayors of the cities of heroes and communities of Ukraine themselves played the role of the circulatory system of the life support of the country and its citizens, where, by their example, they showed the whole world the principle of unity of the people.

Moscow, without planning it, united the whole world with its actions. Like their European counterparts, US mayors have expressed support for the embattled mayors of Ukraine


While the demands of solidarity have muted any criticism of President Zelensky, some mayors believe that it is important that when the conflict finally ends, local governments need to have a role in reconstruction efforts. A post-war Ukraine could provide a model for robust relations between mayors and the central government. The price for that in Ukraine, will have been extraordinary bravery by the country’s mayors in the face of unimaginable brutality.


Georgii Grygorian is an LL.M. student at Georgetown Law. He is a citizen of Ukraine (Kyiv) with roots in Georgia and Armenia. Mr. Grygorian is a Ukrainian attorney with more than ten years of practical experience in law, including in human rights work.


Additional research and editing provided by Professor Meryl Chertoff and the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law.