Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Rapid decline of major Ukrainian city leaves unanswered questions

by Sam Mednick

KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — When about 100 Russian soldiers entered Kherson’s Lilac Park on the morning of March 1, Oleh Shornik was one of about 20 lightly armed Ukrainian volunteers who stood no chance against them.

Witnesses said that Ukrainian forces were nowhere to be seen, and that Russian troops in armored vehicles had easily entered the Shumensky neighborhood, opening fire and sending shrapnel everywhere. Civilians on their way to work were killed in short, fierce fighting. The volunteers hiding among the trees in the park were mowed down so fast that they were not even able to throw the Molotov cocktail they had prepared.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Anatoly Hadzenko, who was inside his home next to the park during the attack, said, “They didn’t have time to do anything.”

Seemingly left on their own, the Citizens Volunteers quickly crumbled. A day later, Kherson did the same.

Thousands of Russian troops from the Crimean peninsula rapidly occupied the city on the Dnieper River on 24 February, with many residents saying they felt abandoned by the Ukrainian military and its quick withdrawal, leaving the city without adequate protection.

But was the ruined stand at Lilac Park a futile, preliminary act of resistance that turned into a bloody Russian occupation of Kherson? Was this due to a hasty retreat by Ukraine’s army so that it could regroup to fight another day – actually recapturing the city later in November? Or was it the result of a betrayal by high-level Ukrainian security officials collaborating with Moscow?

It is possible that it was a combination of all of them.

Now that Russia has retreated from Kherson following Ukraine’s counteroffensive to the south, residents want to know why Moscow’s forces were able to capture the city so easily.

“This story has more questions than answers,” said Svetlana Shornik, standing at her ex-husband’s grave for the first time since the Russians blocked access to the cemetery while they occupied the city.

In addition to the volunteers killed in the park, about five other people were killed that day at a nearby roundabout.

The families of the deceased say they have been trying in vain for months to get information from the army and the government to get some information about the death of their loved ones.

“I know very little,” said Nadia Khandushenko, adding that she does know some facts about the death of her husband, Serhiy, who was also killed in Lilac Park.

Wiping back tears, Shornik told the AP she believed her ex-husband may have been hurt in his final moments as an autopsy revealed the 53-year-old retired policeman had a bullet wound to the lung. Residents said that the bodies lay in the bloodstained grounds of the park for three days because the Russians would not allow them to be buried.

“They’re heroes,” Shornik said. “They were practically defending (the city) with their bare hands,” she said.


The Territorial Defense Force of Ukraine began functioning just before the Russian invasion. A volunteer militia under the command of the Ministry of Defence, it was composed of civilians, part-time reservists and ex-servicemen to fight alongside the regular army.

Mykhailo Samus, founder of the New Geopolitics Research Network, a Ukrainian think tank, said that despite a lack of training and equipment, volunteers played a key role in the war and was a major reason Kyiv was not captured.

“When a (Russian) sabotage group enters a city, they expect to see civilians, but they found a lot of people with Kalashnikov guns and it was a disaster for the Russians,” Samus said.

Civilian volunteers were unable to drive Russian forces out of Kherson, a port city with a prewar population of 280,000 that is home to a shipbuilding industry.

Kherson is just north of Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. When Ukraine controlled the city, it was able to cut off fresh water to the peninsula, and Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need to restore water supplies as a reason to invade. ,

Flat and marshy, the Kherson region has few forests or other natural barriers to stop tanks and troops from nearby Crimea which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and air bases.

Furthermore, Ukrainian officials such as Kherson mayor Ihor Kolykhaev told the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda in May that the failure to destroy key bridges leading to the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions was a mistake that helped the Russians, though they insisted That he was not a military man.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s undernumbered forces had pulled out of Kherson for the southern city of Mykolaiv, said Major Oleksandr Fedyunin, a military spokesman.

That withdrawal “ensured the survivability of the troops and did not allow the enemy to gain air-fire superiority,” said Bohdan Cenik, the army’s chief spokesman.

The rapid capture of Kherson has raised questions about whether Ukrainian allies supported the Russian offensive.

“Russia’s agents had infiltrated Ukrainian security forces, and the cleanup by Kyiv was slow and inefficient,” said Orysia Lutsevich, head of the Ukraine Forum at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “The price of that betrayal was high human loss.”

On 1 April, President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed two senior officers of Ukraine’s SBU domestic security agency, including the head of the Kherson regional branch, stripping them of their rank as generals for violating their military oath of allegiance. took. He called them “anti-heroes” and said they “had trouble determining where their fatherland was.”

He said: “I do not have time to deal with all the traitors now, but they will all be punished.”

In addition, an aide of one of those SBU officers was arrested and the head of Kherson’s regional legislature, Oleksandr Samoilenko, faces prosecution for allegedly handing over maps of minefields and helping coordinate Russian airstrikes. have to do.


The Russian takeover of Kherson – the only regional capital to fall in the war – marked the beginning of a harrowing, eight-month occupation that saw fierce resistance from its remaining citizens, including attacks against Moscow-installed authorities, planted bombs and other threats. . Moscow introduced the ruble, set up a Russian cellphone network and cut off Ukrainian TV in the region. Street protests were banned.

As in other Ukrainian territories seized by Russia, officials who refused to cooperate were abducted, including the mayor of Kherson, Kolyakhev. Residents allege they were imprisoned, beaten, shocked, interrogated and threatened with death at at least five sites in the city and four other sites in the wider region.

The region was one of four that were illegally annexed by Moscow in September, although its troops were forced to withdraw weeks later as the Ukrainians stepped up their attacks with US-supplied missiles. extended and cut off the Russians’ supply lines. The retreating army left behind landmines and traps, shuttered shops and restaurants, and a traumatized population.

In Lilac Park, a small monument honors the volunteers who fell there. Some trees are decorated with wreaths, some with yellow roses and a plaque with a cross and a small Ukrainian flag on top.

It reads: “On March 1, 2022, the fighters of the Territorial Defense were taken to heaven.”


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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