The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Kherson, misery under Russian occupation, hope over Ukrainian gains

Russian soldiers guard the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, on the Dnieper River in the Kherson region, during a May 20 media trip organized by the Russian Defense Ministry. (AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — More than three months of occupation by Russian soldiers has left much of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region isolated, without access to basic medicines and cut off from Ukrainian cellphone and internet service.

The Russian tricolor flag is displayed at most of the main government buildings. There are whispers of a coming referendum that would formally make Kherson part of Russia, at least in the Kremlin’s eyes. The armed occupying forces patrol the streets, while the blasts of artillery shells crashing in the distance can be heard daily — signs of the ongoing fight between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries for control of the area.

Interviews by The Washington Post with people who live in Kherson, were evacuated recently or are in regular contact with residents there painted a grim picture of prolonged life under occupation, in an area that marked Russia’s first major land grab of this war. More than 100 days have passed since Russian tanks rolled into the region from the neighboring Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.

Stores and pharmacies have been closed during that time, and people don’t have access to money while their local Ukrainian banks and ATMs are not operating. There are markets with goods sold out of the trunks of cars — a scene one woman likened to the days after the fall of the Soviet Union. Supplies of medicines such as insulin and saline solution, which is used in everything from cleaning wounds to storing contact lenses, are critically low, she and others said.

“Very many people are in deep depression or suffering from nervous breakdowns,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition that she be identified as “Tatyana” for security reasons as she continues to reside in Kherson.

“And taking some pills or a shot of vodka doesn’t help,” she said. “There are feelings of uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen. We’re just waiting and unequivocally believe it will get better and really look forward to that.”

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Ukrainian troops are posted just 20 miles away at a front line that has barely moved since the start of the war but is heating up after a series of successful counteroffensive operations by Kyiv’s forces. While Ukraine has been steadily losing ground in the eastern region of Donbas, where the fiercest fighting is concentrated in the city of Severodonetsk, gains in the Kherson region have been the rare good news these days.

The Ukrainian military this month reportedly advanced to the strategic settlement of Davydiv Brid, which sits along a main highway. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said a counteroffensive on Davydiv Brid could hinder Russia’s ability to support units north of there, where it also faces Ukrainian counteroffensives.

“Kherson is critical terrain because it is the only area of Ukraine in which Russian forces hold ground on the west bank of the Dnipro River,” the analysts said. “If Russia is able to retain a strong lodgment in Kherson when fighting stops it will be in a very strong position from which to launch a future invasion. If Ukraine regains Kherson, on the other hand, Ukraine will be in a much stronger position to defend itself against future Russian attack.”

The area has other importance to Moscow. The Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region includes the port city of Kherson, which had about 300,000 people before the war, and the 250-mile-long Northern Crimean Canal, linking Crimea with the river. The canal was the main source of water for Crimea until Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014 and Ukraine then hastily built a dam to block the canal’s 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 a key “land bridge” from their military bases in Crimea, along Ukraine’s eastern Sea of Azov coastline and into mainland Russia.

Oleksandr Vilkul, the head of Ukraine’s Kryvyi Rih Military Administration, said the Russian military does not allow people in Kherson to leave the occupied area and move north toward Kryvyi Rih. Some people still manage through back roads, but it’s a perilous drive. Others try to exit northeast to Zaporizhzhia, a trip that would typically take five hours but can now stretch to a week because of holdups at checkpoints. There is often shelling along the route that also causes delays.

“A month and a half ago, 15 settlements had been liberated in the area, and now there are 25 liberated villages,” Vilkul said. “But there are counterattacks from our side, and there are also counterattacks from their side.”

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Tatyana said she rarely leaves her home because the sounds of explosions have become louder and more frequent lately. If she does go out, it’s because she’s desperate to get some bread and vegetables — foods still readily available in the farming region. She tries to make her grocery runs at 10 a.m., when it tends to be quieter. Otherwise, “we live in constant fear,” she said.

“I cry sometimes,” she said. “You can’t, for example, mark your birthday the way you might want to, or even just go out for a walk during the weekend with friends.”

There are indications of resistance from inside the occupation, too — an explosion this week at a cafe near the headquarters of the new Moscow-installed government. Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev, who has stayed in the city but no longer has full governing authority under the Russians, said agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, drive cars with Ukrainian license plates and walk around in plainclothes, listening to locals’ conversations. Many pro-Ukraine activists have disappeared, he and others said, adding to the fear among the population.

Making matters worse is a news blackout due to the lack of cellphone and internet service for the past week, he said. People in Kherson can connect to the Crimea network provider, but it’s blocked by Ukrainian news sites. That means the only news accessible for most is Russian state-owned media — a propaganda vehicle for the Kremlin that highly censors news of the war.

Vladislav Dyachenko, 38, who left Kherson last month, said that even though people are desperate for the humanitarian aid the new Russia-installed authorities are offering, some are hesitant to turn over the passport information that is required to receive it. They worry that their identities will be used to falsify results if there’s a referendum on joining Russia, Dyachenko said.

“People there hate, hate, hate” the Russians and their chosen officials, said Hennadiy Lahuta, the governor of the Kherson region, who is now outside the occupied territory.

“They absolutely despise them,” he said.

Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine. Paul Sonne and Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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