Today was a hot day in Kherson. I am not talking about the weather, although the sun was baking down on the city and surrounding fields and villages alike. I am talking about the plumes of smoke rising from both sides of the front line as the rival Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces pummelled one another with artillery during the afternoon.
Chornobaivka is a western suburb of Kherson near the airport. From the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine until Russia evacuated her forces from Kherson in early November 2022, the Russian Armed Forces held Kherson airport and the Kherson suburb of Chornobaivka, without which they would lose access to Kherson airport. The Ukrainian Armed Forces launched an all-out assault on Chornobaivka, which was very heavily damaged.
The road leading from Mykolaïv into Kherson at Chornobaivka was completely destroyed and Russian defensive positions came under heavy pressure from relentless daily Ukrainian attacks. The pressure applied by the Ukrainian Armed Forces at Chornobaivka threatened to overwhelm the Russian Armed Forces, and that in turn led to the Russian decision to abandon Kherson in time for the 2022 / 2023 winter because they realised that their supply lines were too weak to hold onto the area in the face of heavy Ukrainian military pressure. Chornobaivka became a symbol of what the Ukrainian Armed Forces were capable of, faced with the superior numerical might of the Russian military.
A signpost in Chornobavika, amusingly suggesting that all roads lead to Chornobaivka. It is intended to poke fun at the Russian Armed Forces, suggesting that in invading Ukraine all roads lead to hell.
Today we were supplying humanitarian aid to a community just north of Chornobaivka. While the road has been repaired and the houses in the suburb are slowly being repaired, the area remains extremely tense. To access the settlements we were supporting, we had to cross two aggressive military checkpoints. The second checkpoint was particularly aggressive, and insisted upon an identity document check on all males of fighting age. Even my foreign passport did not relieve me of this obligation. The heavily armed soldier decided to inspect each and every page of my passport and study each and every stamp. The real concern with such checkpoints is that if any of the males of fighting age are Ukrainian and do not have exemption from conscription (the soldiers have access to an electronic system that cross-references a national database), they will be conscripted on the spot. They will be told to get out of their vehicle, at gunpoint, and a bus will be called to take them to the nearest military training centre for several months’ compulsory training before they are shipped to the front line for battle. They do not get an opportunity to go home and pack; they are told that everything they need will be provided for them. So the Ukrainian males were particularly nervous on this occasion. After about 45 minutes, the soldiers let us all go and the sense of relief was almost audible.
The community we fed and supplied was a jolly one, although they truly live in the shadow of death. Chornobaivka, the former front line and the centre of such devastation, is only ten minutes away. Every building in the area has the scars of war: from pieces of shrapnel to bullet holes to missing windows to protective boarding to holes in the walls. Although the main artery between Mykolaïv and Kherson has been repaired, none of the side roads have and navigating them is a matter of dodging craters and minefields. The military checkpoints are manned 24 hours a day and include machine gun turrets, sandbags and sleeping facilities for the guards who are itchy and irritable. As they went through our documents so thoroughly, they were nervous and concerned about something. As we left our settlement this afternoon, we understood what had been on the horizon.
All around us - although we had not noticed it earlier - were billowing plumes of smoke rising high into the air. Although we cannot be certain, it seems likely that these were structures destroyed by Russian-made Krasnopol artillery shells, giant laser guided howitzers with high explosive warheads accurate to approximately 25 kilometres. They had presumably been fired from Russian artillery positions south of the Dnieper River. All along the south of the Dnieper River, from just south of Zaporizhzhia all the way to the mouth of the river into the Black Sea and the Dnieper river delta west of the city of Kherson, the Russian Armed Forces are in control and they have lined the route with artillery positions. For some reason today they had decided to fire those artillery pieces at various targets in adjacent free Ukraine, including a number of targets not far from us. We do not know what the targets were, but given the quantity of smoke we assume they were military positions of some kind. Also, on the south bank of the river, Russian positions were burning, presumably the targets of equivalent Ukrainian artillery strikes.
Kherson today was alight with an exchange of artillery. We have no idea why this was happening. We do not know who started it, although presumably one side was retaliating against strikes initiated by the other. There were no announcements of it in the media (at least none that we have seen yet), and no air raid sirens went off. Nor did we receive any of the usual attack warnings distributed across social media and instant messaging user groups. The exchange of fire just took place unannounced, and we happened to be in the middle of it to witness it.
We drove back to Mykolaïv cautiously but quickly and with determination, navigating the same military checkpoints that on the return journey just waived us through. Then our radios failed between the vehicles. We navigated the roads as piles of smoke wafted up into the air on either side from the positions that had been targeted. We did not hear any explosions. We just saw the smoke in the distance, and we realised that we had been delivering humanitarian aid in the middle of a live firing range between the Ukrainians and the Russians.
Kherson Oblast remains an extremely tense, nervous place and it is obviously still very dangerous. That is no doubt why foreigners are strongly discouraged from visiting and certainly from staying the night, and the soldiers were less than comfortable about our visiting even though we had apparently obtained the necessary permissions. Our next visit to Kherson is on hold, but we hope to go back soon to help the people there who are suffering. Tomorrow we will take an excursion to a somewhat safer destination, and proffer our humanitarian services there.
Update 21:55 Kyiv time Sunday 17 September 2023
Nikopol, on the northern side of the Dnieper River and the Kakhovka reservoir, is reportedly currently under artillery attack from Enerhodar, the site of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility. Another gruelling round of Russian onslaught of the north bank of the Dnieper River between Zaporizhzhia and Kherson appears to be underway.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.