On Wednesday, leaders deployed by Russia in Ukraine’s Kherson region began a massive increase in the relocation of up to 60,000 people, as they warned that Russia was capable of fending off a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of creating “hysteria” to force people out. Residents in the city of Kherson began receiving text messages from the pro-Russian government on Wednesday morning.
“Dear Resident,” it read. “Evacuate immediately. Ukrainian armed forces will shell residential areas. Buses from Rechport from 7:00 [River port] Go to the left bank. ”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Wednesday that he had signed a law imposing martial law in Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions claimed by the Kremlin, in violation of international law. The other regions are Zaporozhye, Donetsk and Luhansk.
The situation in Kherson was “far from simple” and “very difficult”, General Sergei Surovkin said on Russian state television on Tuesday night as he took over as the new Kremlin commander in Ukraine for the first time.
“Our further plans and actions against the city of Kherson will depend on the military and tactical situation on the ground,” he said.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have been moving through several areas of the Kherson region, seizing villages and farmland along the west bank of the Dnieper, also known as the right bank.
Russia’s ability to resupply troops in Kherson has been severely hampered by frequent Ukrainian missile and artillery strikes on Russian-controlled bridges across the Dnieper River. An explosion earlier this month severely damaged the Kerch Bridge linking Russia to Crimea, further hampering Russian logistics.
Last week, the head of the Russian-backed government called on the Kremlin to help evacuate civilians near the front lines.
On Tuesday, rhetoric reached a new level. Just after 11 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), Kirill Stremousov, the deputy director of the Russian-backed government, posted a video on his Telegram channel.
“Ukrainian Nazis pushed by the West will soon start attacking Kherson,” he said. “We strongly recommend leaving the right bank.”
Just after eight this morning, he continued: “Cross the left bank as soon as possible. [the eastern side] or the Dnieper. Hours later, the Russian-backed government even closed all entrances to the right bank of the Dnieper for seven days.
Ukrainian officials believe that less than half of Kherson’s civilian population remains in the city — about 130,000.
Vladimir Saldo, the leader of the Russian-backed Kherson region, told Russian state television late Tuesday that they planned to transfer 50,000 to 60,000 people from the right to the left bank of the Dnieper.
Hear what Russian officials texted Ukrainian residents under Putin’s martial law
Ukrainian exiled leaders in the Kherson region have accused Russian leaders of inciting “hysteria” to terrorize the population and to implement “voluntary evictions” to Russia, where they were helped with housing.
“On the one hand, we understand that the Ukrainian armed forces will liberate Kherson and the region – therefore, active hostilities may occur, which is a risk for the local population,” said Yuri Sobo, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Regional Council Yurii Sobolevskyi said. Helson told CNN on Wednesday.
“On the other hand, there is no guarantee that the evacuated people will be there safe, away from the front lines. Now people make their own decisions – leave or stay. It’s hard to say what decisions they will make.”
According to a July report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia’s “mass expulsions of civilians” and other alleged violations could amount to crimes against humanity. In September, the UN Security Council also said Russia’s forcible deportation of 2.5 million people from Ukraine — including 38,000 children — constituted a human rights violation.
Ukraine denounced Russia’s “filtering” plan at a UN Security Council meeting last week. Ukrainians who are forced to go to Russia or Russian-controlled territory are being killed and tortured, said Ukraine’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Kristina Khayovishin.
Hayovyshyn told the council that thousands of Ukrainian citizens were forcibly deported to “isolated and depressed areas of Siberia and the Far East.
Hayovyshyn said Ukrainian citizens were intimidated on the pretext that Russian authorities were looking for “dangerous” people. Those who hold dissent or are affiliated with the Ukrainian government or media disappear into the grey area. The Ukrainian representative announced that the children were being ripped from their parents’ arms.
Seizing the southern city of Kherson was a key strategic and propaganda victory for the Kremlin during the heady early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when chaos was rife.
On the seventh day of the war, the mayor of Kherson announced that Russian soldiers had entered his office and the city had fallen.
Geographically, this is crucial: Kherson is located at the entrance of the Dnieper River, Ukraine’s central artery, not far from the canal that supplies the Crimea. The Ukrainian government closed the canal in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed the peninsula.
It was the first major city to be occupied by Russia, and the only regional capital it has occupied since February. (Besides Crimea, Russian-backed forces have controlled the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014.) It is the second-largest population center Russia has occupied after Mariupol.
Seven months later, the Kremlin considers Kherson region to be part of Russia after it claimed annexation last month. However, everyone from Russia’s designated leader in the region to the new commander of its entire Ukrainian war effort has raised alarm bells about their ability to fend off Ukraine’s offensive in the region.
The Russian puppet government has promised not to abandon plans for the city of Kherson and that life will return to normal once the army has “solved all tasks”.
Speaking on Russian television, Russian commander Surovykin repeated a metaphor in Russian circles: the Ukrainian military is preparing to shell the city center of Kherson, and even prepare to attack the dam that is part of the hydroelectric power station in Nova Kakhovka, and in the low-lying lower reaches Areas release flood waters.
Ukrainian officials see the idea as Russian propaganda. It will not be easy for Ukraine to retake Kherson if Russia is serious about fighting for it, and Ukrainian troops are reluctant to attack the city center where tens of thousands of civilians can remain.
But Ukrainian military leaders are still optimistic about the Kherson offensive.
“We will make significant progress by the end of the year,” Major General Kerilo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Service, said on Tuesday.
“These are going to be big wins. You’ll see soon.”