Since Russian forces took over the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March, residents have sensed that the occupiers had a special plan for their city. Now, amid a crescendo of warnings from Ukraine that Russia plans to hold a sham referendum to turn the territory into a pro-Moscow “people’s republic”, it seems locals have guessed right.
After Russian forces withdrew from occupied areas around kyiv in early April, they left behind scenes of horror and traumatized communities. But in Kherson – a major city with a major shipbuilding industry, located at the confluence of the Dnieper and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea – the occupying forces have taken a different approach.
“The soldiers patrol and walk around in silence. They don’t shoot people in the streets,” Olga, a local teacher, said in a phone interview last month after the area was cordoned off by Russian forces. She only gave her first name for fear of reprisals.
While the city has so far been spared the atrocities committed elsewhere, daily life is far from normal. All access has been cut off. Kherson is suffering from shortages of medicine, money and many food items, and Ukrainian officials warn it could face a “humanitarian disaster”.
In the absence of cash deliveries to banks in Kherson, the circulation of the Ukrainian hryvnia decreases and credit card payments often fail. Access to Ukrainian television has been blocked and replaced by Russian state channels. A strict curfew was imposed.
Residents believe that Russian troops have not yet besieged or terrorized the city – as they did in Bucha and Mariupol – because they plan to hold a referendum to create a so-called “Kherson People’s Republic”. “like the pro-Russian secessionist territories in eastern Ukraine. Ballots are already being printed for a vote to be held in early May, Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova warned this month.
In an address to the nation on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed residents of occupied Kherson directly, accusing Russia of planning an orchestrated referendum and warning them to protect their personal data from attempts to tamper with votes. ” It’s a reality. Be careful,” he said.
Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhaiev said in a Zoom interview on Ukrainian television that such a vote would be illegal since Kherson is still officially part of Ukraine.
Russia has remained silent on any plans to hold a referendum in Kherson, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko saying this week he was unaware of any such proposal.
But there is cause for concern. In 2014, a disputed referendum in Crimea over Russian annexation was widely seen as rigged, with results showing nearly 97% of voters favoring joining Russia.
A series of Russian moves this week have added to the growing sense of panic in Kherson. The mayor reported on social media on Monday that Russian troops had occupied City Hall, where the Ukrainian flag no longer flew. On Tuesday, the Russians replaced the mayor with their own proxy.
Earlier, a prominent Russian commander, Major General Rustam Minnekayev, announced his intention to take “full control” of southern Ukraine and Donbass, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, in 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 strategically important city and the gateway to broader southern control. From Kherson, Russia could launch a more powerful offensive against other southern cities, including Odessa and Krivy Rih.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta Center think tank in Kyiv, says the Russian military’s softer behavior in Kherson is due to the deployment of Crimean units and separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk, who are either from Ukrainian origin or have close ties to the region. the.
The situation outside the city, however, in the surrounding Kherson region, tells a very different story – with daily reports of kidnappings, torture, murders or rapes. Thousands of people were deprived of electricity, water and gas.
“The situation in the Kherson region is much worse and much more tragic,” said Oleh Baturin, a local journalist. “It is easier for them to take control of the villages; they are defenseless.
Russian soldiers also abducted local activists, journalists and war veterans, according to Kolykhaiev, the mayor of Kherson, who said more than 200 people were abducted.
Among them was Baturin, who was arrested near his home in Kakhovka, 90 kilometers east of Kherson. He was held in solitary confinement for a week and interrogated daily; the soldiers asked for the names of the organizers of the anti-occupation demonstrations, as well as local soldiers and veterans. From other cells, he could hear sounds of torture.
After his release, he fled the occupied territory with his family.
Fesenko, the analyst, says the referendum plan indicates Russia’s intention to occupy the region for the long term.
“In Crimea and Donbass, Russia had the support of the local population, but that is not the case in southern Ukraine, where Ukrainians want to live in Ukraine,” Fesenko said.
During the first weeks of the occupation, thousands of people gathered daily in the main square of Kherson, draped in Ukrainian flags and holding signs proclaiming: “This is Ukraine”. Videos on social media showed people shouting at Russian tanks and heavily armed soldiers. Demonstrations now take place weekly. On Wednesday, Russian troops used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters.
Mayor Kolykhaiev said after warnings about a Russian referendum and mobilization there was a panicked rush to leave. “The queues of people wanting to leave our city have grown to five kilometres,” he said, adding that about a third of the city’s 284,000 residents have fled.
Following Zelenskyy’s address to the nation, Olga sent a WhatsApp message to the AP: “The situation in Kherson is tense. My family and I want to leave… but now the Russian soldiers don’t allow it at all. It’s getting more and more dangerous here.
Late Monday evening, Kolykhaiev wrote on Facebook that armed Russian soldiers entered the Kherson city council building, took away the keys and replaced the guards with their own.
On Tuesday, he posted again, saying he had refused to cooperate with the new Russian-appointed administration.
“I stay in Kherson with the people of Kherson,” he wrote. “I am with you.”