Russian forces have stepped up their scrutiny of civilians in occupied areas of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, detaining locals to root out partisan resistance, according to the Ukrainian military.
In the occupied city of Kherson, Russian troops are now largely wearing civilian clothing and living in civilian housing as they “strengthen positions inside for conducting street battles,” according to the Ukrainian military and a resident of the city with whom CNN exchanged messages.
Ukrainian forces have taken back a significant swathe of territory in Kherson that Russian troops had seized shortly after the invasion began in late February. Kyiv strung together a series of surprising victories in early October in the region, but progress has slowed as Ukrainian forces edge closer to the regional capital, the city of Kherson. It appears as though an intense battle for the city may be looming.
“Amid the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the occupiers have significantly intensified filtration measures,” the National Resistance Center, a creation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said on Monday. “Raids among the local population have intensified in the temporarily occupied part of Kherson region. The occupiers are actively looking for the underground movement.”
The National Resistance Center said that it was aware of dozens of detentions in recent days. It called on civilians to leave the occupied territories “if possible” while the Ukrainian military pushed its counter-offensive.
A top Russian-backed official in the city, Kirill Stremousov, said Monday was the last day that Russia offered an “organized evacuation” for civilians from the western bank of the Dnipro River in the occupied portion of the Kherson region.
“Most residents who decided to stay in Kherson are only now beginning to realize the gravity of the situation and my warnings,” Stremousov, the Russia-appointed deputy head of the Kherson region military administration, said on Telegram.
Anyone who leaves the Kherson region will be given “a one-time payment of 100,000 rubles” – about $1,600 – “and a housing certificate,” Stremousov said.
Kherson is one of four regions Russia has said it will annex from Ukraine in violation of international law. Moscow’s immediate plans for the city of Kherson, however, are unclear. Stremousov said Friday that it was “under the defense of Russian servicemen.” Ukrainian officials said that Russian forces continue to deepen their defensive lines in Kherson as Ukrainian units push forward along the west bank of the Dnipro River.
However, Stremousov said Thursday that Russian troops would “most likely” fall back from positions in the southern city, but Ukrainian officials suggested the statement could be a trap – a sentiment echoed by military spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk on Saturday.
“Russian troops are trying hard to convince everyone they are retreating but at the same time we are seeing objective evidence that they are staying,” Humeniuk said in an interview with Ukrainian media.
Kherson residents have reported seeing an increased military presence in the streets. A resident of the occupied city of Kherson told CNN through a third party on Sunday that Russian soldiers in occupied villages are behaving more aggressively towards civilians.
“On the west bank, near Snihurivka, there are cases of occupiers moving into locals’ houses when people move to the city,” the resident said. “Many soldiers came to the villages, they settle in empty houses. But there are cases when they kick people out of their homes.”
CNN is not identifying the Kherson resident for their safety. The city of Kherson itself has been “relatively quiet,” she said.
“From time to time you can hear automatic gunfire at night,” the resident said. “There is a curfew in the city, and no one goes out at night. The occupiers have created some kind of territorial defense in the city, which deals with security issues.”
Checkpoints within the city itself have been removed, she said.
“There are only checkpoints at the entrance to the city. At the checkpoint they check documents and look what is in the car. If it is public transport, then the soldier enters the minibus. It may vary, it all depends on the mood of the occupiers. They can start checking phones and force men to undress to check for tattoos.”
The resident said that most soldiers appear to be over the age of 30, but that they had begun to see more young men, around ages 18 to 20.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has meanwhile claimed to have disrupted a “sabotage and reconnaissance group” in the region, and detained nine Ukrainian citizens.
The FSB said that it had “revealed and prevented the activities of an SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] sabotage and reconnaissance group in Kherson region, whose tasks included committing terrorist acts against high-ranking members of the military and civil administration of Kherson region.”
The FSB claimed to have discovered explosives, detonators and small arms. The Ukrainian government has not commented on the claimed arrests.
Power outage continues
Water and electricity in Kherson city were temporarily cut off Sunday after damage to infrastructure there. Russian authorities said a trio of “reinforced concrete columns of high-voltage power lines” were damaged in an attack by Ukrainian forces, while Kyiv blamed the Kremlin-backed forces occupying the city. CNN cannot independently confirm or verify details of the claimed attack or who was behind it.
The Kremlin has, in recent weeks, stepped up attacks on civilian energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials alleged that Moscow is attempting to shut off power throughout the country so Ukrainians, civilian and military alike, freeze when winter comes.
As of Monday morning in Kherson, Russian authorities were still trying to restore power. Stremousov, the Russia-appointed deputy head of Kherson region military administration, said he believed electricity and communications would return “in the near future.” He added that there is no problem with food supply and, though some pharmacies are shut, it is “not impossible to get social benefits.”
Stremousov said that authorities continued to offer “evacuation” to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, including now to bed-ridden civilians or those with reduced mobility.
Evacuation offers like this have sparked concerns that Ukrainian citizens may be forced to go to Russian territory against their will. Reports emerged early in the war of tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians being forcibly sent to so-called “filtration centers” before being moved to Russia. Moscow denounced the claims as lies, alleging that Ukraine has hindered its efforts to “evacuate” people to Russia.
Serhii Khlan, a member of the Kherson Regional Council, said Russian forces have continued to force civilians from their homes on the east bank of the Dnipro.
The Kherson city resident who spoke to CNN viewed the idea of getting on an “evacuation bus” to Crimea as a “one-way ticket.”
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report