THE WASHINGTON POST
April 29 at 2:00 a.m. EDT
KHERSON OBLAST, Ukraine — What was the Russian military’s trench position has been abandoned for about three weeks — since Ukraine’s forces won a battle here and pushed the Russians farther back in these towns and villages outside the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. What remains is a burned-out armored personnel carrier, empty cigarette packs, several unopened jars of pickled vegetables and other items the Russians left behind.
Alexander, the Ukrainian battalion commander 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 up 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 the audacity to get cozy 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 has moved minimally in the weeks since.
The Black Sea port city of Kherson, just north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, was the first major city the Russians occupied in this war. In the nearly two months since, Ukrainian forces have launched several counterattacks and reclaimed some villages in the region. But even as the fighting enters a new phase — Russia has said its “special military operation” will now focus on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — the city of Kherson remains a key area in the country’s south under Russian control.
And with both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries appearing to be in defensive positions, it is unlikely Moscow will relinquish its grip any time soon.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country’s invasion of Ukraine, he claimed that Moscow’s “plans are not to occupy” the country. But Russian forces have raised their tricolor flag over the Kherson regional administration building. Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, wrote on Facebook that Moscow plans a referendum in the area in May to attempt to legitimize for its domestic audience that people want to break away from 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 and tanks and artillery,” said Alexander, who provided only his first name and rank in keeping with the Ukrainian military’s security rules.
“But now they’ve stopped doing this,” he added. “I think it’s because they’re waiting. They probably understand now that they don’t have a chance to control all of Ukraine.”
In the first days of the war, Russian forces that had been based in Crimea quickly overwhelmed the outnumbered Ukrainian troops in Kherson, capturing the city of about 300,000 and much of the surrounding area. Alexander said he suspects the Russians won’t try to advance from their positions there now. Instead, they will hunker down, forcing Ukraine to keep some forces in the southern region even as the main battles shift to the country’s east.
But the area has long-term importance for Moscow, too. It includes the 250-mile-long Northern Crimean Canal linking Crimea with Ukraine’s Dnieper River. The canal was the main source of water for Crimea 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 from their military bases in Crimea to Ukraine’s east.
“Right now, the Russian troops are trying to regroup and make some kind of logistical channel for supply,” Alexander said.
Alexander was participating in a training program at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., when Russia attacked his country on Feb. 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 mud road to visit the Russians’ now-deserted post, where they had set up a traffic checkpoint. Walking through their trench, he rummaged through what they had left behind, including clothing, a toilet that was probably pillaged from the nearby village, and an empty vodka bottle.
“You can see here the typical Russian lifestyle,” Alexander said. “They just always drink vodka.”
At a nearby house, Nikolai and Liudmilya, a retired couple in their 60s, showed Alexander their roof, which had been damaged by Russian artillery shelling. They have been sleeping in a neighbor’s root cellar as bombardment continues — even after the village was liberated from Russian occupation. They return to their home daily to feed their farm animals and tend to the tulip garden, which somehow survived bombardment.
Nikolai has learned to tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire, but he still flinches at every loud blast.
“Don’t worry, they’ll be farther and farther away soon,” Alexander told the couple. “We’ll push them back.”
In the city of Kryvyi Rih, about 30 miles north of the Kherson region’s border, thousands of people displaced from Kherson are waiting and hoping for just that. Larysa Sydorenko, who runs a hub for refugees, said most people from Kherson who come through the center stay in Kryvyi Rih rather than moving on to the country’s west — considered safer because it is farther from the Russian border. They remain optimistic that the Ukrainian military will prevail and that they’ll be able to return home soon, 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 self-styled head of a Kryvyi Rih dormitory that’s been converted into a home for the displaced. She asked the building’s 56 children to draw pictures depicting their love for Ukraine and then displayed them in the lobby.
Several of the drawings show green tanks with Ukrainian flags on them. One child drew a heart — one half blue and the other half yellow, the colors of the flag — and wrote “83 kilometers” at the top. Latanishina said that is the distance to the city of Kherson.
Although she has put on a cheery face for her own children, assuring them that their time in Kryvyi Rih is temporary, nearly two months of war has forced her to accept that her hometown might be lost to her for much longer than she expected.
“I’m sure we won’t be able to return this year,” Latanishina said. “I’ve started to tell my sister, ‘Learn to love this city and picture yourself here.’ Because we won’t be going home to Kherson soon.”
Nicole Tung contributed to this report.
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