A senior Ukrainian government official has issued an urgent appeal to hundreds of thousands of people living in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine to evacuate ahead of a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive, working to prepare the population for a bloody struggle on another front, even as Russia makes sustained gains in bitter and costly battles. in the east.
Trying to regain territory in the south, the Ukrainian authorities are facing serious problems. For months, Russia has been digging into parts of the region, complicating escape routes for civilians and forcing Kyiv to decide how much damage it is willing to inflict on cities that—even if the counteroffensive succeeds—will have to be rebuilt. .
“Please go, because our army will definitely de-occupy these lands,” said Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk. One sign of Ukraine’s dilemmas, she pointed out that civilians may first have to flee to Crimea, which was captured by Russia in 2014 and became a key springboard for Moscow’s invasion.
Russian forces have stepped up searches at checkpoints in the region and are blocking the passage of civilians into Ukrainian-controlled areas. The safest escape route for many of the 500,000 people estimated to still live in the Kherson region may be heading south to Crimea, she said.
“We know that today this is almost the only accessible humanitarian corridor, if you can call it that, through which you can leave,” Vereshchuk said at a press conference on Monday. “So, if possible, get out of there, especially if you have children.
From Crimea, she urged people to move to another country, where they can apply to the local Ukrainian consulate. She did not specify how Ukrainians would be able to leave Crimea.
While it is not clear when and if Ukraine will launch a broad offensive, it is conducting limited counterattacks that have put the Russians on the defensive. Ukrainians are currently battling Russian forces trying to hold a defensive line less than 19 miles from the city of Kherson, the only regional capital captured by Russian forces since the February 24 invasion.
The Russians used indiscriminate, heavy bombardments to level entire towns and villages before infantry troops moved in to take over the ruins. But, like other cities and towns that fell quickly in the early days of the war, Kherson escaped the widespread destruction that would define the Russian advance.
Now the Ukrainians are making complex calculations in the struggle for the return of lost lands.
Ukrainian officials stress the importance of keeping the local population on their side, a task that could become more difficult after months of Russian occupation and propaganda. Ministry of Defense of Russia said on Tuesday that she had renovated the last of the seven TV towers in the Kherson region to broadcast Russian channels.
The Ukrainian military also hopes to use local residents behind enemy lines as a force multiplier, conducting sabotage operations, reconnaissance of enemy installations and generally creating a hostile environment for the occupying forces.
This could include attacks, like last weekend, on three Russian soldiers while they were sitting in a cafe on the waterfront in Kherson. Two were killed and a third had to be taken to a hospital in Crimea for treatment after they were attacked by an unidentified gunman, Ukraine’s southern military command said.
Ukraine will also need to assess how much damage it is prepared to inflict on any attempt to retake Kherson, since if successful, restoration will fall on Kyiv. “If the city has been demolished, then why liberate it?” asked Alexander Samoylenko, a Kherson official.
But the Russians had months to consolidate their position.
“It will be very, very difficult to open a humanitarian corridor when there are children there,” Ms. Vereshchuk said. “It was difficult in Mariupol, and it will be even harder in the Kherson region.”
Military analysts warn that it will likely be several weeks before the Ukrainians get the more powerful weapons and ammunition needed to wage a broad offensive in the south. But Ukrainian forces continued to prepare the ground for a broad offensive.
The southern command of the Ukrainian armed forces said on Tuesday that Russia is forced to “resort to desperate means” to hold its outer defensive ring, including launching a “massive missile strike.”
According to the military, there were no casualties, and the region’s air defense systems limited the damage.