Residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson have suspected Russian forces had a special plan for their town since the occupiers took control in early March. Now, amid a barrage of warnings from Ukraine that Russia is planning a sham referendum to turn the region into a pro-Moscow “people’s republic,” it appears that locals were correct.
Russian forces left behind scenes of horror and traumatized communities when they withdrew from occupied areas around Kyiv in early April. The occupying forces have taken a different approach in Kherson, a large city with a major shipbuilding industry near Russian-annexed Crimea, located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea.
While the city has escaped the horrors perpetrated elsewhere, life in the city is far from normal. All access was cut off after Russia occupied Kherson and the surrounding region. Medicine, cash, dairy, and other food products are in short supply in Kherson, and Ukrainian officials warn that the region could face a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
All humanitarian aid has been blocked by Russia except its own, which troops deliver in front of Russian state television cameras and which many residents refuse to accept. The circulation of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency is dwindling due to a lack of cash deliveries to Kherson’s banks, and credit card payments are frequently failing due to damaged communication networks. Access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked and replaced by Russian state channels. A strict curfew has been imposed.
Residents believe that Russian troops have not yet besieged or terrorized the city, as they did in Bucha and Mariupol, because they intend to hold a referendum to establish a “People’s Republic of Kherson,” similar to the pro-Russia breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova warned earlier this month that ballots are already being printed for a vote scheduled for early May.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke directly to residents of occupied Kherson in a national address on Friday, accusing Russia of planning an orchestrated referendum and urging residents to be cautious about sharing personal data with Russian soldiers, warning that there could be attempts to falsify votes. “This is the truth. “Take care,” he cautioned.
Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhaiev added his voice to the chorus of cautions, saying in a Zoom interview on Ukrainian television that such a vote would be illegal because Kherson is still a part of Ukraine.
The growing sense of panic in Kherson has been exacerbated by a series of Russian actions this week. On Monday, the mayor announced on social media that Russian troops had taken control of City Hall, where the Ukrainian flag was no longer flying. The Russians replaced the mayor with a Russian appointee on Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev, a prominent Russian commander, announced plans to take “total control” of southern Ukraine and the Donbas, eastern Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking industrial heartland, in order to establish a land corridor to Crimea. And, according to Ukrainian military intelligence, Russia plans to forcibly mobilize the local population, including doctors, in the southern occupied territories to aid the Russian war effort.
Kherson is a strategically important city that serves as the southern gateway. From Kherson, Russia could launch a more powerful offensive against Odessa and Krivy Rih, as well as other southern cities.
Russia’s access to the North Crimean Canal would be preserved if the Kherson region was occupied. Following the annexation, Ukraine cut off water to Crimea from the Dnieper Canal, which previously supplied 85 percent of the peninsula’s needs.
The Russian military’s softer behavior in Kherson, according to Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta Center think tank in Kyiv, is due to the presence of units from Crimea and separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk, who are either ethnic Ukrainians or have close ties to the region. “As a result, no atrocities have occurred,” he stated.
The situation in the Kherson region, on the other hand, is very different, with daily reports of kidnappings, torture, killings, and rape. Thousands of people have been left without power, water, or gas.