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Kherson on the Verge of Ruin as Russia’s Scorched Earth Offensive Rages On

Like Sarajevo in the 1990s, the Ukrainian city of Kherson is under siege with daily bombardments – but there are only two foreign correspondents there to cover the carnage

The owner of a house destroyed by a Russian aerial bomb in Kherson surveys the destruction. All photos by Paul Conroy @ReflexTV

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The liberated city of Kherson, in the South of Ukraine, faces destruction as Russia employs a “scorched earth strategy” of deliberate burning, destruction, and removal of everything that would be useful to an adversary coming into the area. 

Kherson has a critical significance to the Kremlin’s military goals in Ukraine. Positioned strategically on the Black Sea and the Dnipro River, the southern seaport with a pre-war population of almost 300,000, is a potential launchpad for the Russian assault on vital Ukrainian seaports Mykolaiv and Odesa and, possibly, on Transnistria, Moldova. Of equal importance is Kherson’s close proximity to the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014. In terms of strategy and politics, Crimea’s control is set to determine the winner and loser in this conflict.

The Dnipro River cuts the Kherson region in half. The Russian troops occupying the “left” bank are systematically razing the city and the region on the liberated, Ukrainian-controlled “right” bank to stop the Ukrainian army’s advance. Without adequate press coverage, Kherson faces annihilation.

A Russian GRAD rocket fired from the east bank on the Dnipro River into the old town, Kherson. Photos by Paul Conroy @ReflexTV

Invasion and Occupation

Russian forces occupied Kherson on 1 March 2022, just a week into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russians had hoped for a warm reception “with flowers” in Kherson. Instead, between 24 February and 1 March 2022, the Ukrainian army fought back, and local territorial defence fighters launched Molotov cocktails at Russian armored vehicles. Yet, as Russian troops flooded the region, Ukrainians couldn’t halt the Russian advance. Despite minimal coordination and cooperation among Russian regular troops, Russian Guard officers, pro-Russian Chechen units, and fighters from the Russian-supported unrecognized states of Luhansk and Donetsk’s “People’s Republics”, their sheer numbers prevailed.

On 1 March 2022, the Ukrainian Army withdrew, and Russian troops took control of the city.

After Kherson succumbed to Russian occupation on 2 March 2022, the residents staged almost daily protests in support of Ukraine’s Government. In response, Russians fired shots and used tear gas.

Russian soldiers, armed atop armoured vehicles marked with “Z”, patrolled the streets and searched bags at checkpoints, scrutinizing phone transactions. The Russian Guard’s Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR), notorious for atrocities in other occupied territories of Ukraine, namely Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, orchestrated kidnappings and torture of locals. They raided the homes of former Ukrainian secret service people, activists, military personnel, and journalists. Victims were often hooded, then transported to basements where they were tortured by electric shock, strangulation, and beatings, and coerced to confess to spying for Ukraine. Some were kept in dire conditions at the National Police Headquarters for months.

The Russian military destroyed the largest shopping center in the city, causing job losses, and looting stores and homes in Kherson, seizing alcohol, food, clothing, and household appliances. Russian soldiers also broke into suburban houses, pillaging, wreaking havoc, and slaughtering chickens.

Many residents evacuated their families in April 2022. Others chose to remain and resist.


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Resistance and Referendum

Protests waned but the underground resistance never stopped. Partisans used explosives to attack the Russian military and collaborators. Many passed on the information on the location of the Russian military equipment to Ukrainian forces.

In the small village of Bilozerka in Kherson Oblast, strategically positioned on the road to the crucial seaport city of Mykolaiv, the local resistance altered the course of the war. With just two routes to Mykolaiv from Kherson, one already controlled by the Russians, Bilozerka’s bridge became vital. Locals fortified the bridge, using old tires, tank hedgehogs, window frames, disused trucks, and spare vehicle parts, and confused Russian forces by keeping the village dark. These simple moves won the Ukrainian military time to regroup, organise Mykolaiv’s defence, and halt the Russian advance southward to the key ports of Mykolaiv and Odesa.

On 30 September 2022, the Kremlin forcibly annexed the Kherson region, as well as occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions, using sham referendums – illegal during wartime and martial law in Ukraine.

Staged ‘independence’ votes rank among the Kremlin’s favoured tactics in its hybrid warfare arsenal. The Russian Secret Service has a well-established history of funding separatist groups and meddling in referendums worldwide, from Georgia, Moldova and Catalonia to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 Brexit vote.

To prepare for the referendum, Russians blocked Ukrainian TV and social media. Kherson residents only had access to the Russian propaganda materials encouraging them to vote and promising a bright future with Russia, even as their living conditions deteriorated, with shortages of water, electricity, heat, and food.

Armed Russians escorted ballot boxes but the majority of Kherson residents refused to participate voluntarily. To manipulate results, the Russian occupational authorities used personal data collected by forcing residents to fill out personal information questionnaires to receive food.

President Vladimir Putin declared, “Kherson is with Russia forever.”

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Liberation and the Flood

On 11 November 2022, Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson without a single battle. Russian generals and propagandists spun the retreat as a “sly manoeuvre” to spare Russian soldiers’ lives.

Just three days later, Zelensky greeted Kherson’s residents on the main square. The city residents met the Ukrainian army and the President with flags, flowers, songs, and tears of joy. The following day, the Russian military unleashed missiles on Ukraine’s power grid, plunging the region into darkness.

In the aftermath of the nine months of occupation, at least four torture chambers and several mass graves were discovered in the region. The extent of the war crimes is still being investigated.

An expansive 8,000 square kilometers in the Kherson and Mykolaiv Oblasts were heavily mined. The Russians resorted to widespread mining prior to their retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro River, placing mines everywhere, including beneath the bodies of their fallen soldiers. In Bilozerka, they mined the solar power plant. Mining and critical infrastructure destruction are the “scorched earth” policy signature moves, but the Russian invaders had other tools in their arsenal. While the local authorities and military worked on demining, Kherson faced a new ordeal: ecocide.

On 6 June 2023, the upper section of the hydroelectric dam in Russian-occupied Nova Kakhovka, Kherson Oblast, was destroyed, resulting in an uncontrollable release of water, numerous casualties, and a dire humanitarian and environmental crisis.

Ukraine’s South Command of the Armed Forces stated that the Russian military occupying the dam was responsible for the explosion. Russia accused Ukraine. According to an investigation by the New York Times, the dam’s destruction resulted from an explosive charge planted by Russian forces controlling the dam. Satellite and seismic data corroborate this theory.

In Russian-occupied Nova Kakhovka, water levels soared as high as 12 meters, submerging the town. The evacuation of residents in the Kherson Oblast from about 30 settlements, including Russian-occupied territories, became the whole country’s effort.

The erosion caused by the flood posed a severe threat to protected natural areas downstream of the Dnipro River. The dam’s collapse had significant repercussions for agricultural production and food security, disrupting the irrigation system in southern Ukraine connected to the Kakhovka reservoir, leaving a quarter of a million hectares of irrigated land without access to water. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, the direct damage from the dam’s destruction could exceed $2 billion, with $950 million attributed to the destruction of houses, primarily concentrated on the Russian-occupied bank of the Dnipro.

This catastrophic event was just one more facet of Russia’s broader scorched-earth strategy.

Scenes of devastation in downtown Kherson attacked daily by Russian artillery and aviation. Photos by Paul Conroy @ReflexTV

Scorched Earth

Russia has a well-documented history of employing a military strategy which involves the deliberate destruction of virtually all resources of value to an enemy, including vital resources like water, food, human lives, animals, vegetation, tools, and infrastructure.

It can be executed by a retreating army, leaving nothing valuable for the advancing enemy, or by an advancing army to counter unconventional warfare tactics. Key components of this strategy include destroying communication networks, blowing up bridges, and sabotaging electrical generators. Deploying scorched earth tactics against non-combatants is explicitly prohibited under the 1977 protocols of the Geneva Convention.

Russia has a long history of using this strategy, tracing back to the Great Northern War in the 18th Century, to Napoleon’s invasion;in World War One and World War Two, and later, the Russian army employed scorched-earth tactics during the Soviet-Afghan War, the First and Second Chechen Wars, and in Syria.

In the ongoing war, Russia has razed numerous cities and villages in Ukraine from the map. Some of the hardest-hit areas included Mariupol, Maryinka, and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, as well as Sievierodonetsk, Rubizhne, and Popasna in the Luhansk region and Izyum in the Kharkiv region.

As they work on recovering from the nine months of occupation and the environmental disaster, attacks on Kherson and the region have escalated. Artillery, missile, and drone strikes continue, and the use of chemical weapons, banned by the Geneva Convention, have been reported. The Russian military also targets civilians with prohibited cluster munitions.

Since mid-September 2023, the Russians have started to use guided aerial bombs, dropped from aircraft, and equipped with guidance systems to precisely control their trajectory and impact.

In a single day, on 2 October, they conducted 80 attacks, firing 502 projectiles from mortars, artillery, ‘Grad’ MLRS rockets, tanks, aircraft, and drones, launching 60 projectiles on the city of Kherson. Russian military targeted residential areas, damaging and destroying educational institutions, churches, humanitarian centres, a shopping centre, an auto centre, a factory, and critical infrastructure facilities in Kherson, killing two civilians and injuring seven. The attacks are launched 24/7 but intensify at night, causing sleep deprivation to demoralise the civilians.

The lack of journalists due to the risks and extended waiting periods for getting permits in the front zone leads to media silence surrounding the ongoing destruction of Kherson. Inadequate reporting allows the Kremlin to continue razing the city and the region with apparent impunity. There is a pressing need for urgent international intervention to stop the complete destruction of Kherson.

Follow Paul Conroy and Zarina Zabrisky on Substack in the Kramatorsk Diaries

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