TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Moscow-installed authorities in Ukraine’s occupied southern region of Kherson urged local residents to evacuate to Russia on Friday, as Kyiv’s forces pushed their counteroffensive deeper into the region.
The move, announced a day before, indicated that Ukrainian military gains along the war’s southern front are worrying the Kremlin, which is struggling to cement its hold on areas illegally annexed from Ukraine last month. Russian authorities immediately promised free accommodations to anyone who heeded the recommendation to leave Kherson.
The region’s Moscow-installed leader, Vladimir Saldo, told Russian state TV on Friday night that hundreds of people requested to be evacuated from the region. “We’re advising those who are scared of incoming missiles, in order not to get in the way of the Russian military, to depart to the Russian Federation,” he said.
Saldo said Thursday the evacuations would take place from four cities, including the regional capital Kherson and Nova Kakhovka. The latter lies almost on the contact line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, with the Ukrainians advancing closer and closer.
The Russian-installed officials in the region tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation, describing the evacuations as “humanitarian,” “wellness” and “vacation” trips to Russia that were voluntary. For those willing to leave, buses and ferries were being provided, according to Saldo.
But residents painted a much less pleasant picture.
Konstantin, a resident of Kherson city who spoke on condition of having his last withheld for safety reasons, told The Associated Press on Friday that columns of military trucks had begun to move around the city and eventually leave. All schools were closed, and most state institutions and local administrative bodies had moved to reduced working hours, he said.
“The mood in Kherson is not cheerful. The city is now in suspense. Primarily the Russian military from the headquarters and the family of collaborators are leaving,” Konstantin told the AP. “Everyone is discussing the imminent arrival of the Ukrainian military and preparing for it.”
Russia has characterized the movement of Ukrainians to Russia or Russian-controlled territory as voluntary, but in many cases it is the only route residents of the occupied areas can or are allowed to take.
Reports have also surfaced that some were forcibly deported to “filtration camps” with harsh conditions. In addition, an Associated Press investigation found that Russian officials deported thousands of Ukrainian children – some orphaned, others living with foster families or in institutions – to be raised as Russian.
Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov ascribed the announced evacuation to “uncertainty as to whether the Russians will be able to hold the city”.
“The Russians are afraid of a repetition of the stampede from the Kharkiv region in Kherson, when military equipment and archives were abandoned, and therefore they are preparing to leave in advance,” Zhdanov said.
Zhdanov said the Russians might be concerned about Ukraine doubling their stockpile of HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems by the end of the month, which “would have a significant impact on the nature of the fighting in the south.” There are currently 20 HIMARS units in Ukraine, and another 25 HIMARS units and equivalents will enter service in the coming weeks.
“The Russians regrouped in the south and the pace of the Ukrainian advance in the Kherson region slowed down a little, but this only gives the Russians a little more time to evacuate. It does not stop the counterattack on Kherson and the region,” Zhdanov said. “It’s a question of a few weeks, a month maximum.”
Reports of preparations for evacuation of civilians also came from the city of Melitopol, located in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region, which neighbors Kherson to the east.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov told reporters at an online briefing Friday that security officers, those working with Russian-installed authorities and building managers “have already received information about the need for evacuation” and even “have been given evacuation routes.”
Fedorov said the Russian forcers were not allowing Ukrainians to depart from the occupied areas to Ukrainian-controlled territory through the key Vasylivka checkpoint, where more more than 1,000 cars and more than 4,000 people were lined up Friday.
“The situation is definitely not improving. Every day, it is getting worse and worse, because the number of people who want to leave is increasing every day, and the (Russians) simply don’t let them out,” Fedorov said.
Melitopol, with a pre-war population of 150,000, is the largest city on the Northern Tavria peninsula. It was one of the first big cities to fall to the Russian forces in March.
Military analysts predict that Melitopol and Berdyansk, which could be attacked from the Ukrainian-controlled parts of Zaporizhzhia, would become one of the main targets for the Ukrainian army in the coming days.
“The Russians are very much scared that the Ukrainians might build up a reserve and move from Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol, and if it is successful, the entire southern part held by the Russians will collapse and all the achievements and victories of Putin will evaporate – both Enerhodar will be encircled, and Kakhovka with the North Crimean canal and water to Crimea, and the land corridor (to Crimea),” Ukrainian analyst Zhdanov said.
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Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press