There is a second force at work as Ukraine’s military intensifies its attacks on Kherson and suggests a fresh push to retake the area. They are a network of operatives and informers that work behind the lines of the adversary; they are Ukraine’s shadow army.
We travel to Mykolaiv to meet the resistance warriors, passing through a region of sunflower-yellow and sky-blue scenery. It has evolved into the partisans’ command center on the southern front. It was the first significant town in Ukrainian-controlled territory west of Kherson.
As we pass through military checkpoints, we see enormous billboards that depict a hooded, faceless man and the phrase “Kherson: The partisans see everything.” The goal of the painting is to frighten the Russian invaders of the area and inspire the people who are confined there.
The man in front of me persists, his voice somewhat muffled by a black mask he’s pulled up from his neck so I can’t see his face while we record him in a room I can’t describe so neither can be discovered. “The resistance is not one group, it’s total resistance,” he says.
He goes by Sasha.
Ukraine strengthened its Special Forces just before this war, in part to create and lead a resistance movement. It even released a PDF handbook on how to be a good partisan, complete with guidelines for subversive actions like cutting the occupier’s tires, putting sugar in gas tanks, and defying management at work. One advice is to “be grumpy”.
However, Sasha’s informers play a more active part by keeping tabs on Russian troop movements within Kherson.
As we look through some of the numerous films he sends each day from the nearby region, he explains, “Say yesterday we saw a new target, then we sent that to the military and in a day or two it’s gone.” One is from a man who drove through a military installation and captured footage of Russian vehicles, and the other is from CCTV footage showing Russian trucks passing by while covered with their massive Z war-marks.
Ukrainians “who have not lost hope in victory and want our country to be freed” are what Sasha refers to as his “agents.”
Of course they’re scared, he replies. However, serving one’s country comes first.
A team that uses drones to scan Kherson for military targets works with Sasha. All volunteers—civilians, not soldiers—raise money through social media to cover the cost of their expensive equipment.
Prior to the war, the in charge man grew ornamental plants, but Serhii claims that after witnessing the bodies of killed citizens in Bucha during the Russian occupation, the man decided to join the struggle to free the south. After that, “I couldn’t just stay at home,” he claims. While this conflict is ongoing, “I didn’t know what more I could do or think of.”
Instead, he chose a task that is very risky. Every time he and his four teammates venture outside, the Russians open fire, but no one has been hurt. Serhii sighs, “I know to some extent it’s a matter of chance,” and cracks a gentle smile. But if that happens to me, at least I’ll know there’s a reason for it.
The partisans are battling to stop Moscow from staging what seems to be a referendum in order to prevent Russia’s hold over Kherson from becoming unbreakable. Russian propaganda is being broadcast through state-run TV channels into Ukrainian homes, and the country has already brought the rouble and its own mobile phone networks to the area. Local media have either retreated or stopped reporting.
Dmytro Butrii, the region’s acting leader, claims that a vote to join Russia would be a fraud, a “complete fake,” and would not be recognized by any “civilized” authority. Butrii is currently confined to Mykolaiv and a small rear office covered by sandbags.
That wouldn’t matter much to Moscow today.
The area is strategically important to Russia because it supplies water to Crimea, which it unlawfully invaded in 2014, and because it completes the much-discussed “land bridge,” or tract of land that connects Russia proper to the peninsula.
Some residents have sided with the Russians in order to assist them. Sasha’s team is therefore compiling a database of those “collaborators” using insider knowledge. He continues, “It’s so that nobody can afterwards claim that they were with the resistance.”
But it also serves to intimidate. Partisans are encouraged to place threatening placards outside the residences of the collaborators that feature the collaborator’s face and a coffin or “Wanted” signs with substantial rewards for their demise. The activists then take pictures of the outcomes and send them to Sasha.
“Numerous graffiti can be seen. People display their posters and write things like “stuff your referendum,” “Sasha explains his most recent information from Kherson. “It demonstrates how many people are not afraid: in a city with military patrols all over, they manage to print flyers then stroll around with adhesive when they could be stopped at any time and things would end very poorly,” said one observer.
Numerous assassination attempts have been made against people who have sided with the Russians. A blogger was shot, a member of the Russian-installed administration was assassinated, and vehicle bombs injured other people. The most notable individuals to change sides now routinely don body armor.
Vladimir Putin continues to insist that his invasion of Ukraine was a “liberation” operation, yet in Kherson, his troops impose their authority through intimidation and force.
Hundreds of individuals have been detained and many of them have been tortured since Russian forces invaded the area in March. Some have vanished and been silent for weeks. Others have been found dead or have been handed to their families by Russian authorities in corpse bags.
According to insider sources, troops were manning the streets and randomly stopping buses to examine everyone on board. Even a message or photo on your phone that even remotely suggests support for Ukrainian control can result in your imprisonment.
Oleh’s missing teeth serve as a constant reminder of the beatings he received from his Russian interrogators whenever he smiles in the mirror. He claims that they also broke seven ribs, of which three have not yet healed. Although he has begged me not to publish his identity, his real name is not Oleh.
He was a resistance fighter who saw Denys Mironov, another prisoner, being tortured before Mironov passed away while being held by the Russians.
Oleh talks in chilling detail about what happened after 27 March when he and Denys were snatched from the street: he describes constant beatings in the first hours involving electric shock, suffocation and death threats. He’s sure his interrogators were from the FSB security service.
At some point, his spirits fell so low that he contemplated ending his life, even attacking a guard so they would shoot him.
“They were looking for Nazis, so they beat me because I was bald. They reckoned they’d caught a damn Nazi,” he answers, when I ask what information his captors had wanted. “When they stripped me, they saw I had Simpsons underpants so they said I was an American agent and punished me for that.”
A month earlier, when the Russians invaded, Oleh and Denys had joined the territorial defence, Ukraine’s volunteer army. But much of the military melted away with the first explosions and Kherson’s remaining forces were quickly overwhelmed. So the men became partisans, working against the Russians from the inside.
“We got information on where their forces were based, and when they were on the move, and we passed that on to the military,” Oleh explains, adding that he was involved in a lot more activity that he can’t talk about.
Another partisan I met described helping Ukrainian forces escape in boats across the Dnipro when they were surrounded – and stealing weapons from the Russians. “I’ll tell you the rest when we win,” he laughs when I press him for more.
Denys, a 43-year-old with a wife and son – and a fruit and veg business before the war – began driving a bread van around Kherson, handing out food and scouting for intelligence as he went. He and Oleh were also collecting weapons, preparing to join the battle to liberate Kherson as soon as Ukraine launched the counter-offensive that everyone expected.
Instead, the two men were detained and tortured.
I asked Russia’s FSB to explain what happened to these men and others. They didn’t respond.
It was the middle of the first night before Oleh saw Denys again, and by then he could barely walk and was struggling for breath. Even so, the guards beat him some more. “They hit him in the groin, then the face, then two men with batons took down his trousers and started to beat him near his kidneys,” Oleh says, recalling how the tape holding a bag over his own head had worked loose enough for him to see.
“It was clear his lungs had been punctured and he’d been really badly hurt,” he says. “But if he’d been helped in time, his death could have been avoided. It’s awful.”
On 18 April the men were transferred to a facility in Crimea and the next day, Denys was finally taken to a military hospital where Oleh was sure he would recover.
The first Denys Mironov’s family knew of his death was over a month later, when he was returned to Ukraine as part of a body swap.
Many people left Kherson for safety soon after the Russians seized control. The government in Kyiv recently urged others to evacuate, warning that a military operation to retake the region was imminent.
But getting out isn’t easy.
Russian officials limit the number of vehicles crossing the frontline and only permit one route into Ukrainian-controlled areas, the road that heads north to Zaporizhzhia. Multiple military checkpoints on the way make it a no-go for Ukrainian men of fighting age. Even women and children face waiting weeks for places on free evacuation buses, or an exorbitant fee for a place in a private car.
But hundreds still flee each day, tumbling off buses or unfolding themselves from crowded, stuffy cars just before dusk into a supermarket car park that doubles as a reception area for those forced into exile in their own country. The adults look exhausted, the children’s smiles are timid, as if they’re not quite sure whether they’re safe yet. Steam gushes from beneath the bonnet of a blue Lada like it’s about to explode. After security checks, volunteers offer food and clothes and, for some, there are tearful reunions with waiting relatives.
People fleeing Russian-occupied territory arrive in Zaporizhzhia
We can’t travel into Kherson now it’s occupied, but the mood in this crowd reveals plenty about life there. Even on Ukrainian-controlled soil, people are wary of what they say. “Will the Russians see this?” some of the new arrivals want to know before I film or even record them speaking. Others shake their heads as I approach, and turn away from my microphone.
“It’s tough there, the Russians are everywhere,” Alexandra tells me, bouncing baby Nastya on her knee in the back of a car. Inside the aid tent an older woman is standing with two carrier bags at her feet looking lost and lonely. Struggling with tears, Svitlana tells me she’s fled Kherson because her nerves are in shreds but her husband has refused to come with her. “He said he’s waiting for the Ukrainian army to come and liberate us,” she says.
As night begins to fall, and more vehicles pull in, a man admits that his own family are running from more than the missiles. “We know people are disappearing, it’s true,” he tells me, without giving his name. “In Kherson, you don’t go out in the evening.”
The danger from shelling has increased in recent days, on both sides of the southern frontline.
In Mykolaiv the days usually start with explosions from 4am: down south, the Russian launch sites are so close that the warning siren only goes off after the first missile hits. One morning, sheltering in our hotel basement, I counted at least 20 explosions in the city, some close enough to shake the building. Once the curfew lifted, we found a nearby school in ruins, the playground swings blanketed in the thick grey dust of the collapsed sports hall.
But Ukrainian attacks have also increased, both in number and impact, as more powerful weapons supplied by the West have made it to the region and are making a difference. Residents in Kherson city have recorded multiple strikes on Russian ammunition depots. Bridges across the Dnipro, including the Antonivskiy, have also been hit multiple times, disrupting Russian supply lines.
The push to retake Kherson could be approaching.
Sasha believes many of those who have remained in the city are ready to stay and fight; those I’ve spoken to say support for Russian rule is minimal and the searches, detentions and beatings in recent months have shrunk that still further.
“When the army starts to invade, then people will be ready and will help,” Sasha says.
After his own brutal experience in Russian custody, Oleh is already back on the southern front to fight for his hometown, alongside Ukraine’s partisan army.
“They can take the land, but they can’t take the people,” is how he puts it. “The Russians will never be safe in Kherson, because the people didn’t want them there. They don’t like them. They won’t accept them.”
Photographs by Sarah Rainsford. Follow Sarah on Twitter
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