Lviv, Ukraine (AFP) – Since Russian forces captured the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March, residents have felt that the occupiers had their own plan for their town. Now, amid mounting warnings from Ukraine that Russia is planning a sham referendum to turn the territory into a pro-Moscow “people’s republic,” locals seem to have been right.
After the Russian forces withdrew from the occupied areas around Kyiv in early April, they left behind the scenes of horror and shock. But in Kherson – a large city with a major shipbuilding industry, located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea near the Russian annexed Crimea – the occupying forces took a different path.
“They are not shooting at people in the streets,” Olga, a local teacher, said in a phone interview last month after Russian forces sealed off the area. “They are trying to give the impression that they came in peace to liberate us from something.”
“It’s a little scary,” said 63-year-old Alexander, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, like other residents. But there is no panic, people help each other. There is a very small minority of people who are happy that it is under Russian control, but for the most part, no one wants Kherson to become part of Russia.”
While the city has so far escaped the atrocities committed elsewhere, daily life is far from normal. After Russia occupied Kherson and the surrounding area, all access was cut off. Kherson now suffers from severe shortages of medicine, cash, dairy and other food products, and Ukrainian officials warn that the region could face a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
Russia has blocked all humanitarian aid except for its aid, which soldiers deliver in front of Russian state television cameras, which many residents refuse to accept. With no cash deliveries to Kherson banks, circulation of the Ukrainian hryvnia currency is dwindling, and damaged communications networks mean credit card payments often fail. Access to Ukrainian television was blocked and replaced by Russian state channels. A strict curfew was imposed.
Residents believe that Russian forces have not yet besieged or terrorized the city – as they did in Bucha and Mariupol – because they are planning a referendum to create a so-called “Kherson People’s Republic” like the breakaway pro-Russian regions in the east of the country. Ukraine. Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova warned this month that ballot papers should already be printed for the voting to take place by early May.
In an address to the nation on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke directly to residents of the occupied city of Kherson, accusing Russia of planning an organized referendum and urging residents to be vigilant about personal data they share with Russian soldiers, warning that there may be attempts to rig votes. . That’s a fact. “Be careful,” he said.
Kherson Mayor Igor Kulekhaev joined the chorus of warnings, saying in an interview with Zoom on Ukrainian television that such a vote would be illegal because Kherson is still an official part of Ukraine.
Russia has been silent on any plans to hold a referendum in Kherson, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko saying this week that he was not aware of such a proposal.
But there is cause for concern. In 2014, the disputed referendum in Crimea amid Russian annexation was widely believed to be fake, with results showing that nearly 97% of voters supported joining Russia.
A series of Russian actions this week have increased panic in Kherson. The mayor stated on social media on Monday that Russian forces had captured City Hall, where the Ukrainian flag was no longer flying. On Tuesday, the Russians replaced the mayor with whomever they appointed.
A prominent Russian commander, Major General Rustam Minkayev, announced plans to take full control of southern Ukraine and Donbass, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrial heartland, with the goal of establishing a land corridor to Crimea. Ukrainian military intelligence reported that Russia intended to forcibly mobilize the local population, including doctors, in the occupied southern territories to support the Russian war effort.
Kherson is a city of strategic importance and a gateway to broader control of the south. From Kherson, Russia could launch a more powerful attack against other southern cities, including Odessa and Kryvyi Rih.
The occupation of the Kherson region would also preserve Russia’s access to the North Crimean Canal. After the annexation, Ukraine cut off water from the canal, which flows from the Dnieper River to the Crimea and previously provided 85% of the peninsula’s needs.
The softer behavior of the Russian army in Kherson is due to the deployment of units from Crimea and separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk, who are either of Ukrainian origin or have close ties to the region, says Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta Center in Kyiv. there. “So, there were no atrocities,” he said.
However, the situation in the surrounding Kherson region tells a completely different story – with daily reports of kidnappings, torture, murder or rape. Thousands of people were deprived of electricity, water and gas.
“The situation in the Kherson region is much worse and more tragic,” said Ole Baturin, a local journalist. “Kherson is a big city and there are not many soldiers. It is easy for them to take over the villages. They are defenseless.”
On April 19, Russian forces opened fire on the villages of Velika Oleksandrivka and Rypalchi, killing civilians and damaging homes, the Kherson region prosecutor’s office reported. A week ago, Russian forces shot dead seven people in an apartment building in the village of Pravdin. Then, with the purpose of covering up the crime, the occupier blew up the house with the corpses of the executed persons, the report stated.
Russian soldiers have also kidnapped local activists, journalists and war veterans, according to Kulekhayev, the mayor of Kherson, who said more than 200 people have been kidnapped.
Among them was Baturin, who was captured near his home in Kakhovka, 60 miles (90 kilometers) east of Kherson. The journalist was meeting an acquaintance from another village when a group of Russian soldiers attacked him at the train station. Baturin said they kept him in isolation for a week, interrogating him every day. He asked the soldiers for the names of the organizers of the anti-occupation protests, local soldiers and war veterans. He could hear the sounds of torture from other cells.
After his release, he fled with his family from the occupied territories.
“If I stay, I’m pretty sure they’ll come for me again,” Baturin said, speaking by phone last week from Ukraine-controlled territory after he fled.
Analyst Fesenko says the referendum plan indicates Russia’s long-term intention to occupy the region.
“In Crimea and the Donbass, Russia had the support of the local population, but this is not the case in southern Ukraine, where Ukrainians want to live in Ukraine. This means that in the event of a prolonged occupation, Russia risks facing a wide partisan movement.
During the first weeks of the occupation, thousands of protesters gathered daily in Kherson’s main square, draped in Ukrainian flags and holding banners reading “This is Ukraine”. Videos on social media showed people screaming at Russian tanks and heavily armed soldiers. Protests are now held weekly. On Wednesday, Russian forces used tear gas and sound bombs to disperse the protesters.
Olga, the teacher, participates regularly. She was previously a native speaker of Russian, but now she refuses to pronounce the language. I will never be able to communicate with the Russians again. How do I feel about the people bombing maternity and pediatric hospitals? “We were on the boom – and now they’re ruining our lives,” she said.
Mayor Kulekhaev said that after the warnings about the referendum and Russian mobilization, there was a panicked rush to leave. “The queues of people wanting to leave our city increased to five kilometers,” he said, adding that about a third of the city’s pre-war population of 284,000 had fled.
After Zelensky’s address to the nation, Olga sent a message via WhatsApp to the Associated Press: “The situation in Kherson is tense. My family and I want to leave … But now the Russian soldiers do not allow this at all. It is becoming more and more dangerous here. ”
Late Monday night, Kulekhaev wrote on Facebook that armed Russian soldiers entered the Kherson City Council building, took the keys and replaced the guards with their own.
On Tuesday, the mayor sent again, saying that he refused to cooperate with the new administration appointed by the Russian regional military commander, Oleksandr Kubits.
He wrote: “I am staying in Kherson with the people of Kherson.” “I am with you.”