The Russian Armed Forces withdrew voluntarily from the city of Kherson, and all the parts of Kherson Oblast to the west of the Dnieper River that they had occupied early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, between 9 and 11 November 2022. They realised that they could not maintain the supply lines to a significant city of slightly fewer than 300,000 people throughout the cruelly cold southern Ukrainian winter. However they reserved their revenge for the parts of the Oblast that they had evacuated for 6 June 2023, when they blew the dam at the Kakhovka Reservoir. The dam, upstream on the Dnieper Reservoir, when it burst caused large parts of the Oblast west of the Dnieper and parts of the city itself to flood. Then, after Kherson had flooded, the Russians started shelling the flooded parts of the city. Until just two or three months ago, Kherson remained a death trap. The city was on the receiving end of 50 to 60 artillery barrages a day from Russian positions on the east bank of the Dnieper River, and the people of Kherson lived in terror. Then in July 2023, Russia just stopped her campaign of destruction in the region and now Kherson exists in a tense peace.
Still the city is barely fit for human habitation. There are virtually no hotels open. There is little in the way of restaurants or other social spaces. Most shops, including the supermarkets, are closed. Most buildings having boarding applied to the ground floor windows and doors, to protect against artillery. The majority of buildings have war damage. Apparently the trains are working again from Kherson railway station, but I was unable to confirm this. It is not possible to buy train tickets to and from Kherson on the internet, and I was unable to enter the railway station to check which was mostly boarded up but there were a few signs of life. I saw no trains. There is a series of military checkpoints on the road approaching Kherson from Mykolaïv, and on all roads leading out of Kherson in any direction, that are stricter than other military checkpoints I have seen on the front line in Ukraine. The soldiers are tense and routinely search vehicles for evidence of weaponry or contraband.
Aid workers and soldiers move into Kherson down the otherwise mostly empty road from Mykolaïv each morning, but the 7:30pm Kherson curfew each evening means that they must move back to Mykolaïv at night. While the road from Mykolaïv is passable and mostly empty, it is no longer in good condition, having been shelled, mined, booby trapped and everything else over the course of the last months. At least the carcasses of dead soldiers have been removed from the sides of the roads, but the minefields on both sides remain.
There remains evidence of flooding in parts of the city, with watermarks having been corroded into the buildings. There are few people on the streets, even in the middle of the day. There is ample traffic, but most of it falls into the category of bust up local vehicles. There is virtually nothing in the way of ordinary day to day life in Kherson. Whole apartment blocks, many with all their windows blown out, stand empty, longing for lodgers. Kherson feels cold and empty, as though death herself has been here not long ago.
Rural Kherson Oblast, north / west of the Dnieper River and now under free Ukrainian control, has also suffered terribly. The road system in the Oblast is abysmal. Unpaved, gravel or sand roads are the norm, often littered with holes and craters. There are signs everywhere across the Oblast warning people not to step or drive off the road by reason of danger of mines. Kherson was on the hot front line for an extender period and mines were laid virtually everywhere. The flooding caused many villages to be cut off and many bridges to collapse, including on the main road from Mykolaïv to Kherson near Kherson airport, just to the west of the city centre. That bridge has been rebuilt but many of the bridges in rural areas have been pontooned using more or less ad hoc military procedures.
Amazingly, we found life in one village just northeast of Kherson city. It was Saturday afternoon, and the children of the village were celebrating because some foreigners had come to town with hot food, face paints, jolly music and some local artists. Great fun was had by all. The goal was to create a semblance of normality for the villagers, who just a few months ago were the targets of relentless Russian shelling. There was no rhyme or reason in attacking these villagers; it was just an exercise in terrorism. Nor was there any sense in flooding all these villages, damaging their roads and destroying the connecting bridges that serve as lifelines for these rural communities. It was just one more arbitrary and mindless set of incidents in this senseless, horrific conflict.
Kherson is now at peace, although it is an uneasy feeling to realise that Russian artillery positions are just on the other side of the river around which the city of Kherson is built. The historical Habsburg-era buildings in the old part of the town remain standing. Nevertheless the infrastructure in the city has collapsed entirely. It will involve a huge amount of work to rebuild Kherson after the Russian occupation, departure, flooding and shelling, and so far there is scant evidence that any of this is taking place. The city feels as though it is rotting. It is impossible to tell how many people have fled the city, but one senses that the greater majority have left; only those who could not do so, such as the elderly and infirm, remained in the face of the Russian occupation in the early days.
Kherson was a town associated with merchant shipping and the cruise ship industries. Many of its residents spent their lives and careers aboard international vessels; Ukrainians are renowned for working in these industries and many such employees used Kherson as their home base. Those people have disappeared, possibly forever. The question that remains for the international community is how to reconstruct Kherson as a cosmopolitan centre while at the same time preserving the city’s history and culture. It will require intensive structured international investment and attention to Kherson to achieve this. There is no evidence that the international community has yet established a presence in Kherson proportionate to the city’s strategic importance for the future of Ukraine, with the Russian Armed Forces stationed just over the river. Maintaining peace and stability in Kherson is manifestly enormously important, and this requires concentrated attention to the process of reconstruction.
Where are the foreigners? Where is the aid and development funding? Kherson has yet to receive these things. International attention needs to be focused upon Kherson now.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.