A sunray appeared on a cloudy Wednesday, November 9, after weeks without good news from the war front. All the headlines were screaming about the Russian army leaving Kherson, a city occupied since March. Tabloids were full of opinion articles discussing whether the Ukrainian army is going to reconquer at least two recently occupied territories – Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. But what does the Kherson return really mean? Is Ukraine that close to victory? Let’s dig into it.

Kherson is an important strategic point for the Kremlin. It is a region that connects with the Crimean Peninsula, also occupied and annexed in 2014. It is vital for the Russian authorities to control all the roads that lead to the peninsula. Knowing that Kherson was going to be Moscow’s aim, 135,000 of the city’s inhabitants and 20% of the surrounding area left for safer areas since February.

When Kherson was fully controlled by the Russian army in March, civilians there marched in protest. We all saw those videos and photos of people demonstrating on the streets of Kherson against the new local Russian authorities. But as in all other regions across the whole country, the security system made it hard to show any affection for Ukraine and its flag. There were cases of people disappearing after taking the risk and showing their pro-Ukrainian views. Still, the system is never perfect, so some partisans acted against the Russian authorities. During the summer when the war got milder and more localized in Eastern Ukraine, the shadow army made an attempt on the lives of high figures, and it became obvious that Kherson is full of silenced Ukrainians. 

Ukrainians protesting in Kherson. March 20, 2022. Retrieved from https://suspilne.media/219580-ziteli-hersona-ta-oblasti-prodovzuut-vihoditi-na-mirni-mitingi-proti-okupacii-rosijskih-vijskovih/

The presence of partisans, their attempts to kill the new local authorities, and undecided borders of the regions were the reasons why the issue of official annexation of the occupied territories was still not resolved by September. The pro-Russian authorities’ plan to join big brother on the only election day in Russia, September 11th, was ruined by the risk of more deaths of officials and civilians. 

Then, unfortunately for the Kremlin, in September, Ukrainian troops started to get closer and closer to the borders of the Kherson and Luhansk regions. Sensing the coming enemy, pro-Russian authorities started a campaign of uniting with Russia. Together with heads of unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk republics, as well as Zaporizhzhia, the Kherson’s head asked for an immediate referendum. They knew that the official paper about being part of Russia guarantees the safety and trust of the Kremlin. Moreover, for Moscow, it means that any attacks on the four territories will signify an attack on Russia, which implies much heavier consequences.

Therefore, the urgent referendums took place on September 23-27. As it had already happened in Crimea, the choice was forced. Men dressed in full military ammunition with guns came to apartments and asked for an opinion. After 5 months of captivity and fear of being caught by the Russian security system, how can someone refuse to join Russia? How can someone say no when threatened at gunpoint? Taking into account the oppression and the habit of falsification of any public questionnaires, the results of the referendum were ridiculously pro-Russian, 87% chose to join the Russian Federation. 

Residents cast their “votes” in Donetsk region. September 23, 2022. Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. Retrieved from https://kyivindependent.com/national/life-under-occupation-i-voted-against-because-i-was-born-and-raised-in-ukraine

On September 30, the occupied territories were officially annexed. The ceremony took place in the Kremlin, with more than 200 officials attending. The event started with all the guests filling the huge and pompous hall. I remember looking at their faces, some of them were bored, in the eyes of others, especially the heads of newly occupied territories, you could see some anxiety. But what united them was the absence of any shame and dignity. They were sitting in fancy suits and sparkling shoes, with the aura of pride, but waiting for one man, Vladimir Putin, to come, like students waiting for a professor. 

The waiting took so long for the president, that  my family and I hoped that something had happened to him. Nevertheless, he arrived and started his broken record, a melody that one heard too many times: the hegemony of the States, the EU’s full dependence on them, Russia’s mission to break today’s world’s order, Ukraine is just a war field on which NATO and Russia faced each other. The whole speech, or more like a Soviet professor’s lecture, lasted for 40 minutes. Afterwards, he invited the heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk (unrecognized) republics, as well as of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, to sign the agreement to join the territory of the Russian Federation. Four intruders proudly proceeded. The ceremony ended with them weirdly shaking hands with Putin and the audience scanting “Russia.” Frankly speaking, if they had been screaming “Fuhrer,” the whole scenery would still have made sense.

From left to right: head of Kherson region, Volodymyr Saldo, Evgeny Balitskiy, head of the Zaporizhzhia region, president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, head of Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, head of Luhansk region, Sergey Gaidai. September 30, 2022. Photo by Maksim Stulov. Retrieved from https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2022/09/30/943294-putin-obyavil-o-vhozhdenii-donbassa-v-sostav-rossii

Three weeks later, martial law was announced in the Kherson region. According to the conditions of this state, authorities have a right to announce a massive movement of citizens to safer areas. So, as the Ukrainian army was getting closer, the people of Kherson were offered to move from the side of the river that the city is located on. Little did civilians know that if they had stayed, they would have seen Ukraine coming back in less than a month.

On November 9, the Russian army and bureaucratic apparatus announced leaving Kherson. After the news went through the whole world, the office of the Ukrainian President put the issue in a more down-to-earth manner. Mikhail Podolyak, Zelensky’s office’s head, said that it is too early to talk about the return of Kherson, “It is important to remember one thing. The liberation of the whole Kherson will a result not of political bargaining, but rather of a system work of Ukrainian army forces.” Therefore, the fight for the whole Kherson region is still in the future. 

Nevertheless, the special battalions of the Ukrainian army entered Kherson on November 11. The blue and yellow colors returned to the streets, to the administrative buildings, and to houses. People are meeting troops with open arms. 

A woman hugging a Ukrainian soldier in Kherson. November 12, 2022. Lesko Kromplitz / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA. Retrieved from https://meduza.io/feature/2022/11/13/osvobozhdennyy-herson-dvesti-shestdesyat-vtoroy-den-voyny-fotografii

Still, there are some facts that were outshined by the good news. First of all, hours before the general of the Russian army announced the withdrawal of the troops, the deputy head of the Kherson pro-Kremlin military-civilian administration, Kirill Stremousov, died in a car crash. He, like all of the other collaborators, should have left the city and joined the office on the other side of the river, with the head of the office, Volodymyr Saldo. However, his life ended just when the troops and bureaucratic forces were finishing moving from Kherson. According to the official version, the truck that Stremousov’s car bumped into, is guilty. But, surprisingly enough, there are neither loud claims about Ukrainian partisans’ handiwork nor a proper investigation of the accident. This makes it look like Kremlin’s backstage games. Maybe, Stremousov was against leaving Kherson for Ukrainians or he was a potential traitor. Whatever the reason is, it is unlikely to be just an accident.

Moreover, recently, the bridge that used to connect the two sides of the Dnipro river was destroyed. Antonovsky bridge was the main way for the Russian army to receive weapons and move troops. During the summer it was bombed by the Ukrainian forces, as they were trying to cut off the enemy in Kherson. Despite many attempts, there was a way of crossing the river through a ferriage. Though, two days after the official announcement of the withdrawal of the Russian troops, the bridge was finally demolished. Now, there is barely a way to cross the river. On one hand, it makes the return of Russians to Kherson harder. But on the other hand, Ukrainians also cannot move forward without the bridge. Therefore, considering that nearby bridges are also ruined, what is definitely clear is that the war in the region will be artillery, with the use of massive weapons, as well as with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. 

Satellite image showing the northern span of the damaged Antonovsky Bridge, in Kherson, Ukraine. November 11, 2022. Technologies/AP. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/11/world/europe/kherson-bridge-russia-ukraine-war.html

Concluding, the return of Kherson is a crucial point in the war right now. It is a result of the continuous hard work of the Ukrainian army and its progression in the war field. But at the same time, the Kremlin made a decision to leave the strategic aspect because of its lack of forces. Right now, the Russian army needs a pause for replenishing stocks and teaching the mobilized men to at least hold a gun. Once the supplies are full, the Kremlin may start acting even more aggressively. But for now, let’s take a moment to enjoy the good news for a little bit.

Featured image by: Yevhenii Zavhorodnii / AP / Scanpix / LETA

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