Near Kherson, the Ukrainian army takes over villages

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KHERSON OBLAST, Ukraine – What used to be the Russian army’s trench position has been abandoned for about three weeks – since Ukrainian forces won a battle here and pushed the Russians further into these towns and villages on the outside the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. What remains is a burnt-out armored personnel carrier, empty cigarette packets, several unopened jars of pickled vegetables and other items the Russians left behind.

Alexander, the commander of the Ukrainian battalion in the area, picked up the food and pointed out the Ukrainian labeling. “These were probably stolen from the villagers,” he said.

He walked through the dirt tunnel and lifted a pair of valenki – traditional felt boots that many Russians wear around their country homes in the winter. He was disgusted that the invading soldiers had had the audacity to settle here.

An exchange of artillery fire could be heard in the distance – a reminder that even though the Ukrainians expelled the Russians here, the front line moved very little in the weeks that followed.

The Black Sea port city of Kherson, just north of the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia, was the first major city occupied by the Russians in this war. Over the next two months, Ukrainian forces launched several counterattacks and recaptured some villages in the area. But even as the fighting enters a new phase – Russia has said its “special military operation” will now focus on Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region – the city of Kherson remains a key area in the country’s south under control Russian.

And with the Russian and Ukrainian armies appearing to be in defensive positions, Moscow is unlikely to let go of its grip any time soon.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country’s invasion of Ukraine, he asserted that “Moscow’s plans are not to occupy” the country. But the Russian forces hoisted their tricolor on the building of the regional administration of Kherson. Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman, wrote on Facebook that Moscow is planning a referendum in the region in May to try to legitimize to her domestic audience that people want to break with Ukraine. The Kremlin employed a similar tactic with a disputed referendum in Crimea after its 2014 invasion and subsequent annexation.

“At first they tried to attack our positions using armored vehicles, tanks and artillery,” said Alexander, who only provided his first name and rank, in accordance with security regulations. Ukrainian army.

“But now they have stopped doing that,” he added. “I think it’s because they’re waiting. They probably understand now that they have no chance of controlling all of Ukraine.

In the early days of the war, Russian forces that were based in Crimea quickly overwhelmed the outnumbered Ukrainian troops in Kherson, capturing the city of around 300,000 people and much of the surrounding region. Alexander said he suspected the Russians would not try to advance from their positions there now. Instead, they will fall back, forcing Ukraine to keep some forces in the southern region even as the main battles shift to the east of the country.

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But the region also has long-term importance for Moscow. It includes the 250-mile-long North Crimean Canal, connecting Crimea with the Ukrainian Dnieper. The canal was Crimea’s main source of water until Putin annexed it in 2014 and Ukraine then hastily built a dam to block its flow. The resulting water shortage in Crimea has been a point of tension between Russia and Ukraine for eight years. Control of Kherson also gives the Russians another key land link between their military bases in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

“Right now, Russian troops are trying to regroup and create some sort of logistics channel for supplies,” Alexander said.

Alexander was participating in a training program at the United States Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., when Russia attacked his country on February 24. Within two weeks he was on the battlefield in Ukraine, and was eventually stationed in the northern part of the Kherson region.

Last week he drove down a muddy road to the now deserted Russian post, where they had set up a traffic checkpoint. Walking into their trench, he rummaged through what they had left behind, including clothes, a toilet probably looted from the nearby village, and an empty vodka bottle.

“You can see the typical Russian lifestyle here,” Alexander said. “They always drink vodka.”

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In a nearby house, Nikolai and Liudmilya, a retired couple in their sixties, showed Alexander their roof, which had been damaged by Russian artillery shelling. They sleep in a neighbor’s root cellar as the shelling continues – even after the village was liberated from Russian occupation. They return home daily to feed their farm animals and tend to the tulip garden, which somehow survived the bombardment.

Nikolai has learned to tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire, but he still flinches with every loud explosion.

“Don’t worry, they’ll be further and further away soon,” Alexander told the couple. “We will repel them.”

In the town of Kryvyi Rih, about 30 miles north of the Kherson region border, thousands of displaced people from Kherson are waiting and hoping for just that. Larysa Sydorenko, who runs a center for refugees, said most Kherson residents who pass through the center stay in Kryvyi Rih rather than move to the west of the country, considered safer as it is farther from the Russian border. . They remain optimistic that the Ukrainian military will prevail and they will soon be able to return home, she said.

Anna Latanishina, 36, fled Kherson with her large family – 12 people in total – on the first day of the war. Since then, she has become the so-called head of a Kryvyi Rih dormitory that has been converted into a home for displaced people. She asked the 56 children in the building to draw pictures depicting their love for Ukraine, then displayed them in the lobby.

Several of the drawings show green tanks with Ukrainian flags on them. A child drew a heart – half blue and half yellow, the colors of the flag – and wrote “83 kilometers” at the top. Latanishina said that is the distance to Kherson city.

Although she has cut a fine figure for her own children, assuring them that their stay in Kryvyi Rih is temporary, nearly two months of war have forced her to accept that her hometown may be lost to her for much longer than expected. .

“I’m sure we won’t be able to come back this year,” Latanishina said. “I started saying to my sister, ‘Learn to love this city and imagine yourself here.’ Because we won’t be going back to Kherson soon.

Nicole Tung contributed to this report.

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