LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ever since Russian forces took the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March, residents sensed the occupiers had a special plan for their town. Now, amid a crescendo of warnings from Ukraine that Russia plans to stage a sham referendum to transform the territory into a pro-Moscow “people's republic,” it appears locals guessed right.
After Russian forces withdrew from occupied areas around Kyiv in early April, they left behind scenes of horror and traumatized communities. But in Kherson — a large city with a major ship-building industry, located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea — the occupying forces have taken a different tack.
“The soldiers patrol and walk around silently. They don’t shoot people in the streets,” said Olga, a local teacher, in a telephone interview last month after the region was sealed off by Russian forces. “They are trying to give the impression that they come in peace to liberate us from something.”
“It is a little scary," said 63-year-old Alexander, who like other residents gave only his first name for fear of reprisals. "But there is no panic, people are helping each other. There is a very small minority of people who are happy that it is under Russian control, but mostly, nobody wants Kherson to become a part of Russia.”
While the city has so far been spared the atrocities committed elsewhere, daily life is far from normal. After Russia occupied Kherson and the surrounding region, all access was cut off. Kherson now suffers from a severe shortage of medicine, cash, dairy and other food products, and Ukrainian officials warn the region could face a “humanitarian catastrophe."
Russia has blocked all humanitarian assistance except its own, which troops deliver before Russian state TV cameras, and which many residents refuse to accept. With no cash deliveries to Kherson’s banks, the circulation of Ukraine's hryvnia currency is dwindling, and damaged communication networks mean credit card payments often fail to go through. Access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked and replaced by Russian state channels. A strict curfew has been imposed.
Residents believe Russian troops have not yet besieged or terrorized the city — as they did in Bucha and Mariupol — because they are planning to hold a referendum to create a so-called “People's Republic of Kherson” like the pro-Russia breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine. Ballots are already being printed for a vote to be held by early May, Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova warned this month.
In an address to the nation on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke directly to residents of occupied Kherson, accusing Russia of planning an orchestrated referendum and urging residents to be careful about personal data they share with Russian soldiers, warning there could be attempts to falsify votes. “This is a reality. Be careful,” he said.
Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhaiev joined the chorus of warnings, saying in a Zoom interview on Ukrainian TV that such a vote would be illegal since Kherson remains officially part of Ukraine.
Russia has been silent about any plans to hold a referendum in Kherson, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko saying this week he knew of no such proposal.
But there is reason for concern. In 2014, a disputed referendum in Crimea amid the Russian annexation was widely believed to be falsified, with results showing nearly 97% of voters supported joining Russia.
A series of Russian actions this week have added to the growing sense of panic in Kherson. The mayor reported on social media on Monday that Russian troops had seized City Hall, where the Ukrainian flag no longer flew. On Tuesday, the Russians replaced the mayor with their own appointee.
A prominent Russian commander, Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev, announced plans to take “total control" of southern Ukraine and the Donbas, eastern Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland, with the aim of setting up a land corridor to Crimea. And Ukrainian military intelligence reported that Russia intends to forcibly mobilize the local population, including doctors, in the southern occupied territories to support the Russian war effort.
Kherson is a strategically important city and the gateway to broader control of the south. From Kherson, Russia could launch a more powerful offensive against other southern cities, including Odesa and Krivy Rih.
The occupation of the Kherson region would also maintain Russia's access to the North Crimean canal. After the annexation, Ukraine cut off water from the canal, which flows from the Dnieper River to Crimea and previously supplied 85% of the peninsula’s needs.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta Center think tank in Kyiv, says the Russian military’s softer behavior in Kherson is because units from Crimea and separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk, who are either ethnic Ukrainians or have close connections to the region, are deployed there. “Therefore, there have been no atrocities,” he said.
The situation in the surrounding Kherson region, however, tells a very different story — with daily reports of kidnappings, torture, killings or rape. Thousands of people have been deprived of electricity, water and gas.
“The situation in the Kherson region is much worse and much more tragic,” said Oleh Baturin, a local journalist. “Kherson is a big city and there aren’t that many soldiers. It is easier for them to take control of the villages; they are defenseless.”
On April 19, Russian forces opened fire on the villages of Velyka Oleksandrivka and Rybalche, killing civilians and damaging homes, the Kherson Region Prosecutor’s Office reported. A week earlier, Russian troops shot dead seven people in a residential building in the village of Pravdyne. “After that, intending to cover up the crime, the occupier blew up the house with the bodies of the executed people” inside, the report said.
Russian soldiers have also kidnapped local activists, journalists and war veterans, according to Kolykhaiev, the Kherson mayor, who said more than 200 people have been abducted.
Among them was Baturin, who was seized near his home in Kakhovka, 60 miles (90 kilometers) east of Kherson. The journalist was meeting an acquaintance from another village when a group of Russian soldiers attacked him at the train station. They held him in isolation for a week, Baturin said, interrogating him every day; the soldiers asked for the names of organizers of anti-occupation protests, as well as local soldiers and veterans. From other cells, he could hear sounds of torture.
After his release he fled the occupied territory with his family.
“If I had stayed, I am absolutely certain they would come for me again,” Baturin said, speaking by phone last week from Ukrainian-controlled territory after his escape.
Fesenko, the analyst, says the referendum plan indicates Russia’s intention to occupy the region long-term.
“In Crimea and Donbas, Russia had the support of the local population, but this is not the case in the south of Ukraine, where Ukrainians want to live in Ukraine. And this means that in the event of a long-term occupation, Russia risks facing a broad partisan movement,” Fesenko said.
Despite the great risk, thousands of protesters gathered daily on Kherson’s main square during the first weeks of the occupation, draped in Ukrainian flags and holding signs proclaiming, “This is Ukraine.” Videos on social media showed people screaming at Russia’s tanks and heavily armed soldiers. The protests are now held weekly and on Wednesday, Russian troops used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them.
Olga, the teacher, regularly takes part. Previously a Russian speaker, she now refuses to utter the language. “I will never be able to communicate with Russians ever again. How can I feel about people who bomb maternity hospitals and children?” she said. “We were flourishing — and now they have ruined our lives.”
There has also been some Ukrainian resistance as well. In what appeared to be a Ukrainian counterattack, a series of explosions rocked the television tower late Wednesday, temporarily knocking Russian channels off the air, both Ukrainian and Russian news organizations reported.
Still, there is a palpable sense of growing trepidation among the city's residents. Mayor Kolykhaiev said that after the warnings about a Russian referendum and mobilization there's been a panicked rush to leave. “The queues of people who want to leave our city have grown to five kilometers," he said, adding that around a third of the city's pre-war population of 284,000 has fled.
Following Zelenskyy's address to the nation, Olga sent a WhatsApp message to the AP: “The situation in Kherson is tense. My family and I want to leave ... but now the Russian soldiers don’t allow it at all. It’s becoming more and more dangerous here.”
Late Monday night, Kolykhaiev wrote on Facebook that armed Russian soldiers had entered the Kherson City Council building, took away the keys and replaced the guards with their own.
On Tuesday, the mayor posted again, saying he had refused to cooperate with the new administration appointed by the Russian regional military commander, Oleksandr Kobets.
“I am staying in Kherson with the people of Kherson," he wrote. “I am with you.”