Kherson counter-offensive cheered by Ukrainians enduring Russian rule

It was the news many in Kherson had waited six months to hear. The Ukrainian counter-offensive launched this week to recapture the southern city was cheered by those who have suffered under Russian rule since Moscow’s forces took over in March.

Residents in Kherson, strategically located on the Dnipro river that cuts across the country, reported hearing missile strikes and explosions around the city, which had made the Russian patrol increasingly jumpy.

“The pro-Ukrainian activity of people who remain in Kherson is very high,” said one resident in his mid-40s. “People here closely follow events at the front, cheer for the armed forces and await the liberation of the city.”

“Explosions are happening every day,” said another Kherson resident, a pensioner. Like all those who spoke to the Financial Times by phone from the city this week, they asked that their names be withheld for their safety.

Kherson remains the only provincial Ukrainian capital captured intact by Russian forces since President Vladimir Putin ordered the full invasion of the country in February, and the only territory occupied by Russian forces that lies west of the Dnipro river.

In that time it has become a hotbed of resistance and partisan activity. When the Russians first arrived, they were met by huge protests. A week later, a pro-Russian administrator was shot dead near his home. The most recent assassination came on Sunday, when a senior official in charge of agriculture at the Moscow-appointed administration was killed alongside his girlfriend.

Kherson residents have reported that the tempo of strikes has increased
Kherson residents have reported that the tempo of strikes has increased © AFP via Getty Images

This week, there were rumours that Kirill Stremousov, the Moscow-appointed governor of Kherson, had fled after he recorded a geolocated video from a hotel in Russia. “Everyone was happy about that. We took it to mean the Russians are worried about the offensive,” the pensioner said.

Ukraine has brought in fresh reinforcements armed with western-made ammunition. Backed by long-range rocket systems, its forces have made a trident-shaped push towards the Russian troops based on the western side of the river in Kherson region.

The new offensive is a step up from the strategy it has pursued over recent weeks. Ukrainian forces have for two months been firing artillery and missile strikes at Russian military bases and local infrastructure around Kherson.

But the extent of the Ukrainian counter-attack remains unclear. Ukrainian officials have maintained a near-total information blackout on the military operation, so as not to give any advantage to the enemy. This has left Russian military bloggers — who claim Ukraine’s “suicide” attack is failing, without offering evidence — to fill in the information gaps.

Kherson residents have reported that the tempo of strikes has increased, while electricity blackouts had grown more frequent, and it had become harder to connect with the outside world through the internet or by phone.

The offensive may also not succeed. The Russian troops are dug in and Ukraine lacks the heavy weaponry to push them out quickly.

“The fact we’ve not taken Kherson yet does not mean that the operation in the south has stalled or failed,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration, said in a post on the Telegram social media app on Thursday evening.

Kherson residents gather to submit documents and acquire Russian citizenship and passport. One of the posters reads: ‘Russia is here forever’ © REUTERS

Amid such uncertainty, daily life in Kherson has continued. The academic term began this week in those schools that are still operating, although one difference this year was that the Russian anthem was sung before class.

Locals swim in the Dnipro river, pausing when an explosion goes off to see where the smoke is. Household chores are completed, food is bought in the local market, and the homes of relatives and friends are visited to check if they have been ransacked by Russian soldiers.

Everyone scours Telegram — the closest equivalent to an independent newspaper — for whatever information about the war they can find.

The Kremlin has pledged it will never abandon the newly occupied territories of Ukraine. It has introduced Russian passports, pensions and the rouble to Kherson, although mostly in unworkable high denomination rouble bills that are difficult to change.

Moscow has said it plans to formally annex the area through a referendum, as it did after invading Crimea in 2014, and Kherson’s streets are plastered with posters declaring “Kherson is a Russian city”.

Another new feature is the vodka stands that have appeared on city streets, according to one resident. “The self-proclaimed government just wants to make the population drunk,” she said.

Not everyone in Kherson sides with Ukraine, and some just want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Paranoia is also on the rise as the occupying forces step up document checks and house searches, and everyone increasingly keeps their thoughts to themselves.

“We’ve reached a state where you cannot express your opinion,” said one fruit seller in the city. “When people are shopping at the market, you don’t know what’s in their heads.”

Another resident said her partner had been detained by the Russians after someone informed on their business dealings. “This was someone close to us, who knew us,” she said. “So now we only discuss the war with very close people.”

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

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