Secret Kherson Resistance Fighters Weaken Russian Occupation Forces

Ihor stood in the ruins of a parking lot in the city of Kherson, which he said was hit by Ukrainian artillery after he and other resistance fighters provided the location of Russian military vehicles.  (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)
Ihor stood in the ruins of a parking lot in the city of Kherson, which he said was hit by Ukrainian artillery after he and other resistance fighters provided the location of Russian military vehicles. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)


KHERSON, Ukraine — Ihor doesn’t even know the name of the person who contacted him. The man said he was a member of Ukrainian special operations forces and wondered if Ihor would be interested in helping fight the Russians occupying his city of Kherson.

“Let me sign up,” Ihor responded.

For months, the two had been communicating encrypted over the Telegram messaging app. Occasionally, Ihor would be asked to help pinpoint where the Russians were firing. Other times, he would send Russian positions, armored vehicles and ammunition depots to the man calling himself Smoke.

Then in August, Ihor gets an even more dangerous assignment from Smoke. There’s a bunch of weapons hidden somewhere in Kherson, and Ihor needs to bury them in a different place to wait for a signal. Finally, Smoke tells him that if the Battle of Kherson turns to street fighting and small sabotage groups are required, Ihor may be asked to pick up one of the weapons and help Ukrainian soldiers.

“Around the city, there were a lot of people with weapons waiting for the right moment to use them,” Ehor said. He declined to give his last name out of concern for his own safety, and Smoke asked to be identified only by his call sign because he works in Special Forces.

During the more than eight months of Russian occupation, an underground resistance movement has formed in Kherson, the only regional capital that Vladimir Putin’s forces have been able to capture since the invasion began last February.

Stories of brave Ukrainian citizens defying invading soldiers were told throughout the war. But Kherson, occupied since early March, is a unique center of resistance activity, with many civilians working closely with Ukrainian security handlers.

Help from inside the occupied territories — sometimes beyond the range of Ukrainian missiles and artillery — has proven key to some of Kyiv’s most brazen attacks, including at an airport in Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

In Kherson and the occupied city of Melitopol, about 140 miles to the east, mysterious explosions during the war killed and wounded Russian-embedded authorities. The explosions are believed to be the work of resistance fighters, also known as partisans, or Ukrainian special forces operating behind enemy lines. Occasionally, bombs exploded in the cars or homes of occupying officials.

Witnesses recount detentions, torture and disappearances in occupied Kherson

People often don’t know who among their neighbors or colleagues are also resistance fighters. In interviews, two members of the resistance group claimed they managed to kill several drunk Russians who were walking alone in the street by stabbing them. These claims could not be verified. But most guerrillas were assigned nonviolent tasks, resistance fighters and officers said, such as hiding weapons or explosives at a location, identifying collaborators, or reporting the location of Russian soldiers and their supplies. This information was then used to direct Ukrainian artillery fire.

In Kherson, Ukrainian forces relied on a subtle insurgency that eventually forced the Russians to retreat last week as the southern front drew closer to the city of Kherson. With the city of Kherson now free of Russian soldiers, resistance is surfacing.

In the central square this week, Smoke, wearing a balaclava, ran up to Ihor and hugged him tightly.

“The most important thing to me is that people are alive,” Smoke said. “That worries me the most. But they survived and thank God that’s the most important thing.”

For a while Ihor wasn’t sure he’d do it.

Ihor said another person he worked with Smoke was also responsible for burying the weapon. The man was captured by the Russians, beaten, and finally abandoned the place where he was supposed to meet Ihor. Ihor was also subsequently captured and spent 11 days in August in a Russian detention facility where guards torture prisoners, he said.

Visiting liberated Kherson, Zelensky sees ‘beginning of end of war’

When Ihor returned to prison for the first time, accompanied by reporters from The Washington Post, he fought back tears. Tatiana, a 74-year-old woman who lives next door to the detention center, said she could hear men screaming every day. “I never want to see this place again, but it’s kind of fun to come back like this,” Ehor said. Some people standing outside asked Ihor if he was being held there.

“I was in there too,” one man said.

“Who isn’t?” Ehor responded.

Because Ihor was still in touch with Smoke, who was stationed outside nearby Ukrainian-controlled Mykolaiv, the Russians released him, saying they would monitor any text exchanges between the two. They demanded that Ihor send screenshots of their conversation any time an update was available — and threatened to put his life in danger if he didn’t cooperate.

But Smoke and Ihor have agreed on a subtle code that could serve as a warning — for example, responding to a message with “ok” instead of “all right.”

Ihor still took risks after that. In September, he noticed Russians park several delivery trucks in a parking lot near the center of Kherson. Ihor walked through the building with the phone to his ear, pretending to be on the phone, while his camera recorded what was going on inside. Two days later, the place was attacked by artillery.

Several resistance fighters told the Post they had reported the location, which helped Ukrainian armed forces confirm it was a worthy target.

A member of Ukrainian special forces, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said he acted as a handler for several informants during the occupation, which required assessing each informant’s capabilities. Someone with a car can drive around and mark the location of troops and weapons. Another place with a view of the main road to report on Russian movements.

“For example, if a bridge or an important communication hub, such as a power line, is blown up, then that may have happened with our help,” the handler said.

“We’re talking about valuable equipment, not just armored personnel carriers, but also command and staff vehicles, communications vehicles, air defense or electronic warfare,” the handler added. “Destroying something that is expensive and in small quantities can degrade the capabilities of the Russians and provide some tactical advantage to our armed forces in certain areas of the front line.”

Some members of this internal resistance group were trained and prepared ahead of the Russian invasion — just in case, the handlers said.

Losing Kherson crushes Putin’s war goals in Ukraine

Others are less likely to be partisans, such as Iryna, a 58-year-old woman who works for local government. Irina, who declined to give her last name out of concern for her own security, has contacts in Ukraine’s main internal security service, the SBU, and regularly passes them information on how the occupation authorities are organized and who is working with the Russians. They also have their own codes. At one point, she even sent a message to her daughter in Bulgaria, asking her to forward it to her agent.

One day, some men whom Irina described as “fellow men” came to her house and asked to bury something in her yard. She agreed and covered the spot with tomatoes. When Russian soldiers searched her home, she claimed she was just a woman cooking for her neighbours.

Earlier this week, her SBU acquaintance visited her and dug up what had been buried in the yard. “They told me making explosives was everything,” she said.

Some resistance is more overt, but out of psychological influence. A group called Yellow Ribbon regularly spray paints spots around town – marking Russian institutions with the yellow ribbon symbol or the Ukrainian letter “i”. They targeted the Bank of Russia, where Russians issue passports and where a referendum on Russian annexation is being prepared. The Russians will cover it with paint, but the yellow ribbon will mark it again.

Organizers marked the home of Kirill Stremousov, a notorious Moscow official in Kherson who died recently in a car accident. They defaced Russian billboards declaring “Russia is here forever” or “Ukrainians and Russians are one.” They also posted pictures of “collaborators” eating at a restaurant in town or walking down the street.

“Afterwards they all started walking around with bodyguards,” said the Yellow Ribbon organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his safety.

One goal, he said, is to make Russians suspicious of the resistance that exists around them. Sometimes people would snap a photo of two Russian soldiers walking from behind, and Yellow Ribbon would post the photo to their Telegram channel with a warning: “We’re watching you.”

One of the yellow ribbon posters hanging in the city mentioned HIMARS, the weapons system that the United States supplied to Ukraine. “If HIMARS can’t reach you,” the poster said, “partisan will.”

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