As a result of its full-scale re-invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24, Russia presently occupies most of Kherson Oblast, a southern region with a million inhabitants that borders on Crimea. In fact, Russian troops captured Kherson with a strike from the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed back in 2014. Now, some observers predict that Kherson will soon undergo the same fate that Crimea did eight years earlier—even while the Moscow-backed quasi-statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” have yet to be officially admitted into the Russian Federation.
The strategic importance of the Kherson region lies in the fact that it physically links the Crimean Peninsula with the continent. So without control over Kherson, Ukraine’s objective of “de-occupying Crimea” becomes that much less realistic. In addition, Crimea is vitally dependent on Kherson Oblast for its water: the North Crimean Canal, which carries fresh water from the Dnieper River to the peninsula, originates there. The blocking of this canal in 2014 by the Ukrainian authorities caused numerous problems for annexed Crimea, and today Russia is striving to further secure its “returned” territories. But this necessitates an expansion of the 2014 annexation. Finally, the Kherson region is an important springboard for a possible strike on Odesa, Russian control of which would finally cut Ukraine entirely off from the Black Sea.
Russia is justifying plans to annex this region with historical arguments, reaching back beyond the Soviet era to the tsarist period. The doctrine of “historical Russia,” which has become popular with Russian propagandists, pointedly conflates the modern-day Russian Federation with the Russian Empire of the 18th–early 20th centuries. It considers the borders of the historical Russian entity as “ours” and ignores all nation-state changes recognized by international law that occurred in the post-tsarist and post-Soviet eras.
In 1775, Empress Catherine II ordered the liquidation of the self-governing center of the Ukrainian Cossacks—the Zaporozhian Sich. After that, the large Black Sea region was named “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”), and Kherson, founded in 1778, with its shipyard, was even considered a “southern St. Petersburg” (Expert.ru, June 5). It should be noted that the term “Novorossiya,” which deliberately connoted an expansion of Russian territories, was revived by Moscow propaganda in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the “people’s republics” in Donbas.
War-time visits of high-ranking Moscow officials to Kherson and other occupied Ukrainian regions denote the symbolic importance of their capture. “Russia has come here forever,” said Andrei Turchak, the head of the ruling United Russia party (RIA Novosti, May 6). Kherson, as well as Melitopol and Berdyansk (captured cities in neighboring Zaporizhzhia Oblast), were also visited by Sergei Kiriyenko, the de facto leader of the Russian presidential administration (RIA Novosti, June 8). According to some insider sources, Kiriyenko is working on creating a positive propaganda image of “Russia after the war,” presumably hoping that the conflict will end in a victory for the Kremlin (Meduza, June 8).
But Moscow-based analysts clearly overestimated the “pro-Russian” sentiments of the local population before the 2022 invasion, likely assuming that, like in Crimea in 2014, the majority Russian-speaking population had been subjected to massive propaganda indoctrination via Moscow TV channels for years. However, in Kherson, local residents expressed no joy about “returning to their native harbor.” And while most of them are, in fact, Russian-speaking, they tended to strongly associate themselves politically with Ukraine.
Since the opening days of the occupation of Kherson and neighboring cities, mass protest rallies have continued there, which Russian troops have sometimes had to disperse using firearms (Region.Expert, June 13). In Kherson, in fact, a dual power has arisen. The regional administration is headed by collaborators appointed by the occupying forces, who want to symbolically consolidate Russian power by erecting a monument to Tsar Catherine II (Pravda.com.ua, June 18). Whereas, the mayor of the city remains Igor Kolykhayev, elected in 2020; he continues to manage the municipal economy and says Kherson residents are awaiting liberation by Ukrainian troops (RBC, May 23).
As for everyday life, the situation in Kherson is approaching a humanitarian catastrophe. All Ukrainian commercial networks, banks and pharmacies are closed. Public utilities and social services do not work. Almost all trade is carried out in street markets. However, despite the invaders’ desire to introduce the Russian ruble, hryvnia banknotes remains in circulation, and even electronic payments using the Ukrainian banking system go through. Ukrainian communication systems have also proven to be surprisingly stable, and attempts by the occupiers to switch to Russian standards are failing. But Russian censorship is already at work (see EDM, June 23), turning into outright terror: hundreds of people dissatisfied with the occupation are being detained and kidnapped (Postimees.ee, June 16). Russian forces have set up “filtration camps” and rob local residents trying to flee to territories controlled by the Ukrainian army (Svoboda.org, June 17).
However, many Kherson residents and locals of other occupied cities are not ready to tolerate this outrage and are switching to the tactics of guerilla resistance (Apostrophe.ua, June 13). Partisan activities are on the rise (The Economist, June 5; see EDM, May 2), including the attempted assassination of the Russian-appointed head of the regional Kherson prison system (Svoboda.org, June 18).
Perhaps this unexpected popular rebuff to the occupation forced the collaborating authorities into slowing down their plans to hold a referendum on incorporating the occupied regions into Russia. Unlike the Crimean referendum in March 2014, which the invaders tried to hold as quickly as possible in an attempt to legitimize the annexation, today the Kherson occupation administration says that the issue of a referendum “is not on the agenda” (RIA Novosti, June 4). In a clear indication of how unpopular the idea of joining Russia is among Kherson residents: an attempt to distribute Russian passports attracted only 23 takers, that is, only the collaborating officials themselves (Svoboda.org, June 11). Undoubtedly, any eventual referendum in Kherson will be as rigged as the one held in Crimea; and in preparation, the occupiers have already stolen regional voter lists (TSN, June 20).
Mass deliveries of modern weapons to the defending Ukrainian army are capable of overcoming this expanding tragedy. However, although the Lend-Lease program in the United States has been approved, sufficiently large deliveries have not yet begun (Interfax, June 18). During World War II, US Lend-Lease helped the Soviet Union withstand the invasion of Nazi Germany. But today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in an effort to restore the empire and destroy the independence of neighboring countries, has itself become reminiscent of its historical foe.