By Oleh Baturin
As Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and the second-largest city of Kharkiv sustain heavy bombing, Russian forces, entering from the Crimean peninsula, are making land gains in the strategically critical southern region of Kherson.
Russian troops entered Kherson, one of Ukraine’s main ports on the Black Sea and Dniper river, in the early hours of March 1. The city mayor Igor Kolykhaev reported that the Russian army had established checkpoints around the city.
“I ask each of you to keep calm and prudent. Do not go outside during curfew. Do not engage in aggressive negotiations with anyone and do not provoke your opponent into conflict,” he wrote on his Facebook profile, adding that the city of 290,000 “was and remains Ukrainian”.
The region has come under heavy shelling since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24, with mounting reports of civilians targeted alongside military and strategic objectives.
Numerous videos appeared on social media, showing civilians hiding in hospital basements while Russian vehicles drove through the city. Satellite imagery on February 26 showed Russian ground forces assembled in Nova Kakhovka at and near the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant on the Dnieper river. By late on February 27, the area around the power plant had been blasted by Grad multiple rocket launcher systems.
A port city of 45,000 on the Dniper, upstream from Kherson, Nova Kakhovka is one of southern Ukraine’s main transport hubs and its run-of-river hydro power plant is key for energy generation and irrigation. Controlling it and securing a land grab in the region would solve Crimea’s critical water needs. In 2014 Kyiv closed the North Crimean canal, a 400-km long Soviet-era waterway connecting the Dniper to the peninsula, supplying residents and irrigating fields. Severe droughts have worsened the situation and water rationing is common. Defending the canal is a strategic priority for Ukrainian forces.
The exact number of civilian casualties is unknown. As of late February 27, the Kherson’s mayor’s office reported 18 deaths in the region, of which six were civilians, including two children . A further 93 had been injured, including 47 civilian and six children.
As the Russian forces took control of the power plant, local media reported that an entire family of five was killed near the facility. They were reportedly from Kherson and had fled the city first to the village of Vesele, then to Nova Kakhovka.
Vesele and the neighbouring village of Kozatske were on the frontline from the start of the invasion. By day four, residents were left with no electricity, drinking water or phone connections and were running out of food and medicines. Local authorities said that they were trying to reach an agreement with the Russians for a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave. However, many people said they were afraid to get on the buses organised for them by the Russian forces, fearing being killed.
Authorities urged people to avoid conflict with the Russian military and confirmed that Nova Kakhovka’s centre was surrounded by Russian troops: with shooting in the street constant, all residents were urged to remain indoor and in shelters.
On February 25, Russian troops hit the emergency response vehicle of the local water supply company. Olha Rashevska, who heads the city’s water utility department, confirmed that the driver died.
That same day, Russian soldiers wounded a man from a local self-defence group as he returned to Nova Kakhovka from neigbouring town of Tavriysk. On February 26, a 72-year-old woman died when the car she was traveling in was shot on the road between the two towns. The day after, another car came under fire along the same road, killing a man and injuring his wife and daughter. On the same day, social media showed footage of an elderly man killed as he rode his bicycle in Nova Kakhovka.
The mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Volodymyr Kovelenko, confirmed shootings in the city, including against civilians, and added that that his first deputy Oleh Tarabaka was personally involved in evacuating wounded people to the hospital from Hidrobudivnykiv street in the central part of the city.
“They were so lucky. They certainly would not have survived if they had stayed at home.”
A resident of Tavriysk, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that civilians were being attacked.
“One of our relatives got sick and my husband and I went by car to the city of Nova Kakhovka for medicines,” she said. “Near the city, Russians with machine guns blocked our way and started shooting at us. We also noticed several trucks standing on the road. The Russians pointed machine guns at the drivers asking for diesel fuel. My husband drove as fast as he could towards the city of Tavriysk. Fortunately, we survived. Our colleague, who went to the grocery shop in Nova Kakhovka was shot as well. His car was damaged, but he managed to escape to the village of Topolivka.”
On February 26, in the village of Tyahynka, two local residents died and two were wounded.
“At about 1pm, a Russian armoured vehicle raced through our village and ran over one person, killing him, and seriously wounded another one. They also shot three cars, killing one and wounding another,” Raisa Ponomerenko, head of the Tyahynka community, told IWPR, adding that an ambulance also came under fire.
Residential houses across the region have been caught in the shelling barrage. On the evening of February 26, a shell hit a house in the village of Velyka Lepetykha, destroying it, although residents managed to flee. On the morning of February 27, another house in Kakhovka was hit. The owners, a young family with a small child, had left to stay with relatives in a neighbouring village the day before.
“They were so lucky. They certainly would not have survived if they had stayed at home,” their neighbour Gennady told IWPR.
Reports of looting are also mounting, in Kherson and across the country, as Russian troops have been facing disruptions in their food and fuel supplies.
“People say that Russians break into the shops in their villages and take away all the food, take away diesel fuel from farmers,” Ljubov Rudya, editor of the newspaper Sils`ki novyny in Hornostajivka, explained to IWPR.
On February 27, videos surfaced of Russian military raiding grocery shops and the local branch of PrivatBank in the village of Verkhniy Rohachyk. In the village of Chornobayivka, near Kherson, troops also ransacked a duty-free shop at the airfield they had captured.
Yuri Sklyar, a local from the Verkhniy Rohachyk community, said that Russian soldiers “walked across our villages asking for food, they were taking chickens, telephones and diesel.