Life Under Occupation: How Ukrainians Resist Russian Domination

It was supposed to be the start of the spring sowing season in one of Ukraine’s most fertile agricultural regions. Then the Russians arrived.

Arriving at a large farm near the southern city of Kherson last week, the soldiers took everything they could, siphoning fuel from tractor tanks, extracting 30 batteries and slipping three diesel generators. Then they commandeered the farmer’s jeep and two trucks and chased them away.

“He was about to start working in his fields – and now he’s grounded,” said Serhiy Rybalko, a local councilor who has been in close contact with the farmer since the Russian raid.

An attack on a nearby village was far worse. There, troops opened fire with machine guns on a fleet of brand new combines and sprayers. “It was pure barbarism,” Rybalko said.

Rybalko and his friends experience firsthand the occupation of southern Ukraine by Russia. For many, this has caused huge disruption as equipment is stolen, roads are blocked and supply chains collapse. Dairy farmers are forced to throw away milk because heavy fighting has shut down local milk processing plants.

For others, the threat is nothing less than existential. Last week, Russian soldiers were filmed taking Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the city of Melitopol, a town about 230 km east of Kherson which is also under Russian occupation.

Officials say his only offense was refusing to cooperate with the Russian military and that he is currently being held on suspicion of “terrorism”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called his kidnapping a “crime against democracy”.

On Saturday, hundreds of residents gathered outside the Russian army headquarters in Melitopol to demand Fedorov’s release – Ukrainian officials said he was freed by Ukrainian special forces on Wednesday.

News emerged that another mayor, Yevhen Matveyev, of Dniprorudne further north on the Dnieper, had also been arrested.

“With no local support, the invaders are turning to terror,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

Vladimir Putin’s offensive in Ukraine has slowed in recent days, and although his forces have besieged the southeastern port of Mariupol and subjected urban centers like Kharkiv in the northeast to ruthless bombardment, they have still not not captured a single major city.

But in the south, the Russian campaign was more successful. At the start of the invasion, Russian troops fanned out north from Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, and occupied a string of towns stretching from Kherson on the Black Sea to Berdyansk on the from Azov.

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Live streamed footage reportedly shows Russian troops standing in the distance as Ukrainian civilians stage a protest amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Kherson

Russian troops stand in the distance as Ukrainian civilians stage a protest in Kherson © Social Media Video/Reuters

Live stream footage shows protesters taking to the streets, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine as Russian troops watch from a distance, in Kherson

Protesters take to the streets of Kherson as Russian troops watch from a distance © Social Media Video/Reuters

Some of Putin’s war planners believed that Russian troops would be welcomed as liberators in this part of Ukraine, whose large number of Russian speakers has a strong cultural affinity with Mother Russia.

They had a rude awakening. Since the start of the invasion, cities like Kherson have been rocked by pro-Ukrainian protests. Thousands of people wave Ukrainian flags, sing the national anthem and hurl curses at Russian soldiers, some of whom retaliate by firing above the crowd.

Last weekend, the object of protesters’ anger was a Russian plan to declare a ‘People’s Republic of Kherson’, modeled on the small pro-Russian splinter states of Donetsk and Luhansk formed in eastern Russia. Ukraine in 2014. A hastily called meeting of the Kherson regional council stalled the proposal.

“We voted against and insisted that Kherson be Ukraine,” the city’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, told the Financial Times by telephone. “We will all continue to work within the framework of Ukrainian law.”

Kolykhaiev himself caused controversy by agreeing to work under the Russian occupiers. Others refused to do so, including Oleksandr Tulupov, mayor of Henichesk, who resigned last week along with his entire management team.

Still others fled to territory under Ukrainian control. “I’m still doing my job, but from a distance,” Vadym Gayev, mayor of Novopskov, told the FT. “I still have the town stamp, so I’m the only one who can sign all the financial documents.”

People protest against the kidnapping of Mayor Ivan Fedorov, outside the Melitopol regional administration building
On Saturday, hundreds of residents gathered outside the Russian army headquarters in Melitopol to demand the release of the mayor, Ivan Fedorov © Deputy Head for President’s Office/Handout/Reuters

In practice, most towns continue to be run as they were before the invasion. The Russians have little interest in the operation of hospitals and schools, preferring to outsource it to locals.

But they have been far more thorough in their approach to the media, shutting down Ukrainian television in areas they control and replacing it with Russian state TV channels.

They also attacked critical journalists. Lyudmila Denisova, Ukrainian parliamentary commissioner for human rights, accused the Russians of “imposing a regime of terror and censorship” in the occupied territories. In Berdyansk, Russian forces “harassed and intimidated journalists” by threatening their families, she wrote on Facebook.

Residents said Russian forces arrested a journalist, Oleg Baturin, in the town of Kakhovka on Saturday. Baturin, who worked for the Noviy Den newspaper, “wrote articles about the Russians, the occupiers, in the neighborhood”, said Ivan Antypenko, a journalist from Kherson who fled the city but is in contact with locals. Another journalist, Sergiy Tsihip, also disappeared on Saturday from the nearby town of Nova Kakhovka.

While pro-Ukrainian journalists are sidelined or locked up, local television spouts Kremlin propaganda. Russian troops brought humanitarian aid to towns such as Kherson and Berdyansk, and Russian television crews were on hand to film its distribution.

Serhiy Kolyada, an artist from Kyiv whose mother lives in Berdyansk, said he told her local TV news was now filled with reports of Russian aid convoys. “People take the help and say on camera how grateful they are, how happy they are to be Russians, to be part of Russia,” he said.

Kolykhaiev, the mayor of Kherson, said citizens were initially reluctant to accept aid, but were pushed into it out of desperation. Because no goods can enter the city from Ukrainian-controlled territory, he said, “pharmacies are running out of medicine, gas stations are out of fuel and food stocks are running out. “.

The shortages are plunging residents of Kherson and its environs into a state of anxious emptiness, he added. “De jure we are Ukraine, but de facto we are completely isolated by Russian troops,” he said.

Michael A. Bynum