The Russian-installed leaders in Ukraine’s Kherson region on Wednesday began massively ramping up the relocation of up to 60,000 people amid warnings over Russia’s ability to withstand a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of generating “hysteria” to compel people to leave. Residents in the city of Kherson began to receive text messages on Wednesday morning from the pro-Russian administration.
“Dear residents,” it read. “Evacuate immediately. There will be shelling of residential areas by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. There will be buses from 7:00, from Rechport [River port] to the Left Bank.”
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had signed a law introducing martial law in Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions the Kremlin claims to have annexed, in violation of international law. The other regions are Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk.
In his first outing on Russian state television as the Kremlin’s new commander for Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin said Tuesday evening that the situation in Kherson was “far from simple” and “very difficult.”
“Our further plans and actions towards the city of Kherson will depend on the military and tactical situation on the ground,” he said.
Ukrainian forces have been advancing through several parts of the Kherson region in recent weeks, capturing villages and farmland along the western bank of the Dnipro River, also known as the right bank.
Russia’s ability to resupply its troops in Kherson has been severely hampered by frequent Ukrainian missile and artillery strikes on Russian-controlled bridges crossing the Dnipro. The explosion earlier this month that badly damaged the Kerch bridge, which connects Russia to Crimea, further bottlenecked Russia’s logistics.
Last week the head of the Russian-backed administration appealed to the Kremlin to help with the evacuation of civilians near the frontline.
On Tuesday, the rhetoric hit a new level. Just past 11 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-backed administration, posted a video to his Telegram channel.
“The Ukrainian Nazis pushed by the West will start their attack on Kherson very soon,” he said. “We are strongly advising to leave the right bank area.”
This morning, just after 8 a.m., he followed that up with: “Cross as quickly as possible onto the left bank [the eastern side] of river Dnipro.” Hours later, the Russian-backed administration went so far as to close off all entry to the right bank of the Dnipro River for seven days.
Ukrainian officials believe that fewer than half of Kherson’s civilian population are left in the city – around 130,000 people.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed leader in the Kherson region, told Russian state television on Tuesday evening that they planned to move 50,000 to 60,000 people from the right to the left bank of the Dnipro River.
The Ukrainian leaders-in-exile of the Kherson region accuse the Russia leaders of drumming up “hysteria” to intimidate the population and enact “voluntary deportations” to Russia, where they’ve been promised help with housing.
“On the one hand, we understand that the Armed Forces of Ukraine will liberate Kherson and the region – accordingly, there may be active hostilities, and this is a risk for the local population,” Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of Ukraine’s regional council for Kherson, told CNN on Wednesday.
“On the other hand, there are no guarantees that the evacuated people will be safe there and far from the front line. Now people make their own decisions – to leave or stay. It is difficult to say what decision they will make.”
The “massive deportation of civilians” by Russia could, along with other alleged abuses, constitute crimes against humanity, according to a July report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In September, the UN Security Council also said Russia’s forcible deportation of 2.5 million people from Ukraine – including 38,000 children – constitutes human rights violations.
Ukraine denounced Russia’s “filtration” scheme at a United Nations Security Council meeting last week. Deputy Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Khrystyna Hayovyshyn said Ukrainians forced to head to Russia or Russian-controlled territory are being killed and tortured.
Hayovyshyn told the Security Council that thousands of Ukrainian citizens are being forcefully deported to “isolated and depressed regions of Siberia and the far east.
Ukrainian citizens are terrorized, under the pretense of a search for “dangerous” people by Russian authorities, Hayovyshyn said. Those who have different political views or are affiliated with the Ukrainian government or media disappear into a gray area. Children are ripped from the arms of their parents, the Ukraine representative declared.
Vital strategic city
In the heady early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when confusion reigned, the capture of the southern city of Kherson was a key strategic and propaganda victory for the Kremlin.
On just the seventh day of the war, Kherson’s mayor announced that Russian soldiers had entered his office, and the city had fallen.
Geographically, it was vital: Kherson lies on the mouth of Ukraine’s central artery, the Dnipro River, and not far from the canal that supplies water to Crimea. Ukraine’s government had shut that canal down in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the peninsula.
It was the first major city Russia captured, and the only regional capital taken since February. (In addition to Crimea, Russian-backed forces have controlled Donetsk and Luhansk cities since 2014.) It’s the second-biggest population center that Russia has captured after Mariupol.
Seventh months later, the Kremlin considers the Kherson region to be part of Russia, after claiming to annex it last month. And yet, everyone from Russia’s designated leaders in the region to the new commander of its entire Ukrainian war effort are sounding the alarm on their ability to withstand a Ukrainian offensive in the region.
Russia’s puppet administration has promised that there is no plan to abandon Kherson city, and that once the military “solve all of the tasks,” normal life will return.
In his remarks on Russian television, Surovikin, the Russian commander, repeated what has become a bit of a trope in Russian circles: That the Ukrainian military was preparing to shell Kherson’s city center, of even to strike the dam that’s part of a hydroelectric plant at Nova Kakhovka, and unleash floodwaters on low-lying areas downstream.
Ukrainian officials have dismissed that idea as Russian propaganda. It will not be easy for Ukraine to retake Kherson city if Russia seriously contests it, and the Ukrainian military will be reluctant to attack an urban center where tens of thousands of civilians could remain.
But Ukraine’s military brass remain bullish over the Kherson offensive.
“We will make significant progress by the end of the year,” the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said on Tuesday.
“These will be significant victories. You will see it soon.”
Jo Shelley, Olga Voitovych, and Olly Racz contributed to this report.