Russian-installed leaders in Ukraine’s Kherson region on Wednesday began massively accelerating the relocation of up to 60,000 people after warning of Russia’s ability to withstand a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of creating “hysteria” to force people to leave the country. Residents of the city of Kherson began receiving text messages from the pro-Russian administration on Wednesday morning.
“Dear residents,” it said. “Evacuate immediately. There will be shelling of residential areas by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Buses depart from Reportport from 7:00 a.m [River port] to the left bank.”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday that he has signed a law imposing martial law in Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions the Kremlin claims it annexed in violation of international law. The other regions are Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Luhansk.
In his first appearance on Russian state television as the new Kremlin commander for Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin said on Tuesday evening that the situation in Kherson was “far from easy” and “very difficult”.
“Our further plans and actions towards the city of Kherson will depend on the military and tactical situation on the ground,” he said.
Ukrainian forces have advanced through several parts of the Kherson region in recent weeks, capturing villages and farmland along the west bank of the Dnipro River, also known as the right bank.
Russia’s ability to resupply its troops in Kherson has been severely hampered by frequent Ukrainian missile and artillery attacks on Russian-controlled bridges across the Dnipro. The blast earlier this month that badly damaged the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia to Crimea, has further hampered Russia’s logistics.
Last week, the head of the Russian-backed administration appealed to the Kremlin to help evacuate civilians near the front lines.
On Tuesday, the rhetoric reached a new level. Just after 11 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-backed administration, posted a video on his Telegram channel.
“The Ukrainian Nazis, pushed by the West, will start their attack on Kherson very soon,” he said. “We strongly advise leaving the right bank area.”
This morning, just after 8 a.m., he eased up: “Cross to the left bank as quickly as possible [the eastern side] of the Dnieper River.” Hours later, the Russian-backed government went so far as to close all approaches to the right bank of the Dnieper River for seven days.
Ukrainian officials believe less than half of Kherson’s civilian population remained in the city — about 130,000 people.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed leader in the Kherson region, told Russian state television on Tuesday night that there were plans to resettle 50,000 to 60,000 people from the right to the left bank of the Dnieper River.
Hear what Russian officials texted Ukrainian residents under Putin’s martial law
Ukrainian leaders in exile in the Kherson region accuse Russian leaders of inciting “hysteria” to intimidate the population and issuing “voluntary deportations” to Russia, where they were promised help in finding housing.
“On the one hand, we understand that the Armed Forces of Ukraine will liberate Kherson and the region – accordingly, there may be active hostilities, and this is a risk for the local population,” said Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council of Ukraine, told CNN on Wednesday.
“On the other hand, there is no guarantee that the evacuated people are safe there and far from the front lines. Now people make their own decisions – to go or to stay. It’s hard to say what decision they will make.”
Russia’s “massive deportation of civilians” along with other alleged ill-treatment could constitute crimes against humanity, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in July. In September, the UN Security Council also declared that Russia’s forcible removal of 2.5 million people from Ukraine – including 38,000 children – constitutes a human rights violation.
Ukraine denounced Russia’s “filtration plan” at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last week. Deputy Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Nations Khrystyna Hayovyshyn said Ukrainians forced to go to Russia or Russian-controlled territory are being killed and tortured.
Hayovyshyn told the Security Council that thousands of Ukrainian citizens are being forcibly deported to “isolated and depressed regions of Siberia and the Far East.”
Ukrainian citizens are being terrorized by Russian authorities under the pretext of searching for “dangerous” people, Hayovyshyn said. Those who have different political views or are connected to the Ukrainian government or the media disappear into a gray area. Children are being snatched from their parents’ arms, said the representative of Ukraine.
In the heady early days of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, when confusion reigned, the capture of the southern city of Kherson was an important strategic and propaganda victory for the Kremlin.
On the seventh day of the war, Kherson’s mayor announced that Russian soldiers had entered his office and the city had fallen.
Geographically, it was vital: Kherson sits at the mouth of Ukraine’s main artery, the Dnipro River, and not far from the canal that supplies Crimea with water. The Ukrainian government closed this channel in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed the peninsula.
It was Russia’s first conquered major city and the only regional capital since February. (In addition to Crimea, Russian-backed forces have controlled the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014.) It is the second largest population center that Russia has captured after Mariupol.
Seven months later, the Kremlin considers the Kherson region part of Russia after claiming last month that it intends to annex it. And yet everyone from Russia’s designated leaders in the region to the new commander of its entire Ukrainian war effort is sounding the alarm about their ability to withstand a Ukrainian offensive in the region.
Russia’s puppet government has promised that there is no plan to abandon the city of Kherson and that once the military “completes all the tasks” normal life will return.
In his remarks on Russian television, Russian commander Surovikin repeated what has become quite the hype in Russian circles: the Ukrainian military is preparing to bombard downtown Kherson, even hitting the dam that is part of a hydroelectric power station at Nova Kakhovka and unleashing flood waters on low-lying areas downstream.
Ukrainian officials have dismissed this idea as Russian propaganda. It will not be easy for Ukraine to retake the city of Kherson if Russia seriously denies it, and the Ukrainian military will be reluctant to attack an urban center where tens of thousands of civilians could remain.
But Ukraine’s military remain optimistic about the Kherson offensive.
“By the end of the year we will make significant progress,” the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Service, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said on Tuesday.
“These will be significant victories. You’ll see soon.”