Crimean authorities have claimed that people in the city of Kherson are requesting political unification with Russia, raising worry that Moscow is creating a pretext for further annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Residents of the city, the first major Russian conquest in Ukraine since the onset of war late last month, have been calling Vladimir Konstantinov with requests “to accept the region into the republic” of Crimea, Russian state media reported.
Mr. Konstantinov is speaker of the State Council of Crimea, which was created in 2014 when the Kremlin seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. “The calls are still coming,” Mr. Konstantinov said, according to the report. “These are the people who have not lost their common sense. They know for sure that there is no Ukraine in that form of statehood.”
Reports of requests to join Russia presaged the annexation of Crimea. Mr. Konstantinov’s comments may mean that Moscow seeks the same for Kherson. Before launching the war last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked “Novorussiya,” an imperial Russian name for what is now the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, a region Russia also sought to secure in 2014.
“Everything which is done needs some pretext and some justification,” said Alexandra Novitchkova, a political scientist who grew up in Kherson. “They want to say, ‘We have these calls and now we can go there,’ just to be legitimized in the eyes of the Russian population.”
Russian forces have now seized control of several cities in southern Ukraine, but Kherson is particularly critical. The former Soviet ship-building centre is the first major urban area north of Crimea, and it occupies an important geostrategic position, with bridges vital to moving troops from Crimea toward Odesa.
The March 2 seizure of Kherson was a major advance for Russian troops. The city is a demographically older, largely Russian-speaking place where, given a choice “between bombing and being occupied, people want to survive,” Ms. Novitchkova said. “They can’t fight, so they comply.”
But on Saturday, only three days after troops took control of Kherson, local residents joined other Russian-controlled cities in loud shows of resistance.
In Melitopol, Berdiansk and Kherson thousands of unarmed people emerged to protest. They sang the Ukrainian anthem in streets and central squares, blocked military vehicles and even, in one case, jumped on a moving Russian armoured personnel carrier while waving a Ukrainian flag.
“They control everything here. But not our minds, not our spirits,” said Nadiia Dehtiarenko, who ran a private kindergarten until the war broke out. She was among those protesting in Kherson Saturday. Screaming “Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!” in front of armed troops, she said, felt “dangerous, scary – but optimistic. Because our people are so courageous.”
“We had to tell them that our city is Ukrainian, not Russian. We don’t want them here.”
In Melitopol, thousands gathered. They chanted “Ukraine, above all” and, to Russian troops: “Occupiers, go home!” Video seen by The Globe and Mail showed a stream of marchers that extended past multiple city blocks in the city’s downtown.
The protests were held in open disobedience of rules established by the Russian occupiers. In Kherson, Russian troops have imposed a curfew, banned cars from the streets except those carrying food or medicine and outlawed assemblies of more than two people. Russians fired repeatedly into the air during some of Saturday’s demonstrations.
“It means the Russian propaganda here has failed. Even people who previously had other views – like, they support Russia – are now on the side of Ukraine,” said political scientist Denis Bihunov.
Such views contrast starkly with public opinion inside Russia, where independent news reporting has been banned and state media have shown Russian troops conducting acts of charity in Ukraine.
Cities seized by Russian troops in Ukraine have had their television programming replaced by Russian broadcasts, which have shown the delivery of humanitarian goods to places under Russian control.
Local internet services, however, remain under Ukrainian control, with digital Russian content blocked. This has created two very different information spheres in cities like Kherson: Facebook groups filled with pro-Ukrainian content, and pro-Russian televisions.
“We are watching Russian TV right now because even in such a tough time, there should be smiles – and we are laughing because no one on earth would ever believe that what they are showing on their TV is true,” said Mariya Litvinovich, a Kherson resident. “We know what’s happening here right now. We see them killing people, bombing civilian targets and shooting cars.”
On Saturday, Ms. Litvinovich was mourning the loss of a friend, Oleksandra Polishchuk, who had been killed several days earlier. Ms. Polishchuk ran an animal shelter near the Antonovskiy Bridge, which was the scene of intense battles between Russian and Ukrainian forces. She had refused to leave, telling her friends, “I cannot go away without my animals.”
She died when a projectile struck her house.
Ms. Litvinovich said she and others in Kherson understand that for Mr. Putin, “it is a big dream to join our territory to Crimea.” But she wants no part, saying she will refuse any offer of aid by occupying troops.
“I would rather die from hunger than take food from Russians,” she said.
And if Kherson does become part of Russia, “I and all of the people I know will leave. We will clean toilets and look after old people in Europe – we will do anything. But we are not going to live under a Russian government like people do in Crimea.”