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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #27



Today we returned to Kherson, to provide humanitarian aid to another area, close to the city, formerly under Russian occupation. At first glance, it appeared to be a quieter day than earlier trips to Kherson. There had been no air raid sirens in Mykolaïv last night, and I was not aware of any attacks in Kherson. However on the way to Kherson I learned that there had been an exchange of artillery fire at 10am this morning across the Dnieper River, and I realised that our convoy was following an unmarked police car. I also realised that our destination was not that I had been told it would be yesterday evening. Our entry into Kherson Oblast was to be undertaken with the utmost stealth.


The guards at the early military checkpoint at the western end of Kherson city seemed more relaxed than on previous occasions. Kherson has a certain attractiveness to it; the centre of the city, which benefits from a warm climate for much of the year, consists of a number of pleasant tree-lined streets and we drove through the city centre without incident. However everyone feels somewhat anxious while driving through the centre of Kherson, as we all know that anything could happen at any time. You are easily within accurate shelling range of the Russian artillery positions when you drive through central Kherson.


Nonetheless I had an opportunity to study in a little more detail the living conditions in downtown Kherson. Virtually every apartment building and other structure has extensive shelling damage. There are no petrol stations obviously open in the vicinity of the city. Very few people are on the streets. One notices the Russian occupation signs, promising the residents of Kherson a prosperous future, torn down and replaced by free Ukrainian signs celebrating the freedom of the city. But still the Russians have destroyed the city. There is no public transport in evidence. Kherson bus station is boarded up. Car parks and supermarkets have been bombed flat. A McDonalds sign stands proudly atop a building that is completely burnt out.


You should stay away from Kherson riverside when driving in convoy or in an obviously international vehicle, because you will otherwise be within plain sight of Russian artillery positions and you can expect to be shelled. Instead, as a security precaution, you drive around the northern edge of the city to the extent possible, in a circuit going past one devastated building after another. We were taking the road northeast from Kherson: the M14, further along which there is significant fighting. This road is an empty strip of devastation. Most of the buildings are destroyed due to shelling, bomb and missile damage. We were the only traffic on the road.


We drove past Antonivsky, a suburb of eastern Kherson where a major bridge crossed the Dnieper River until it was destroyed during the Russian evacuation of Kherson in November 2022. Russian originated reports suggest that the Russian Armed Forces destroyed the bridge, to prevent the Ukrainian troops pursuing them from following them and passing over to the south bank of the Dnieper River to continue their advance there. This seems plausible. At Antonivsky, the Russian positions are only a few kilometres away. All you can see on the M14 road at this point is destroyed gas stations. There are checkpoints every five kilometres.


A certain element of paranoia is rampant in the Kherson region. I have been asked more than once whether I am in the KGB, presumably because I speak some Russian.


We ended up providing humanitarian supplies to a village formerly under occupation whose population in substantial part did not flee and were notoriously resistant to the Russian Armed Forces’ presence. One of the old ladies in the village is reputed to have cooked poisoned biscuits for the Russian soldiers and killed twenty of them. I was told that the people of Kherson city used to add poisons to the fruit they sold to Russian soldiers during the occupation of Kherson. It seems the occupiers were far from popular with the residents of Kherson. The ladies of this village spent the day knitting military netting for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This is apparently a common practice throughout the villages in free Kherson.


There was a long uncomfortable ride down rural roads with burnt out crops. After a few hours of work, we started hearing the dull roar of the heavy guns and we packed up quickly, taking the risky road home via the centre of Kherson. Something exploded by the side of the road on the way through Kherson city. It is impossible to tell what these things are, when they happen; you check that no damage has been incurred by any of the vehicles, and you carry on driving.


Kherson does not so much have air raid sirens as a city-wide alarm, a single dull loud note, that warns of imminent attack. It was sounding as we drove back through the city centre. Later, I received a report that Kherson was under attack by Russian laser-guided bombs during the course of the afternoon. In such circumstances, virtually the entirety of Kherson Oblast is under military rule and there is little or no civilian law enforcement there.


I wonder what the point is of Russia’s continued attacks upon the city of Kherson. There seems to be no military purpose to any of it. The Russians have already acknowledged that they cannot take and hold Kherson; their supply lines are too weak. Their continued bombardment of Kherson seems to have little point to it other than to wreak havoc and terror amongst the civilian population. This seems to me to represent a fundamental failure in the Russian war strategy: their actions are driven in substantial part by malice. The propaganda signs erected in Kherson during the Russian period of occupation from March to November 2022 were not intended to persuade the people of Kherson of anything, who by all accounts loathed the occupation and the Russian occupiers. Instead they were intended for domestic Russian audiences in Moscow and elsewhere, to show ordinary Russians that the invasion of Ukraine was going well when in fact it was not.


Now Russia seems determined just to keep pounding Kherson and making the lives of the people there a misery. They may be doing this because they feel genuinely under threat and they fear the Ukrainian Armed Forces achieving a breakthrough in the Kherson region - something that would involve crossing the river. Rivers are often natural frontlines in conflicts, precisely because they are difficult to cross, especially in the absence of air support - and neither side is substantially deploying any air force over Ukrainian skies. Nevertheless it is not impossible. If the Russian supply lines were stretched reaching Kherson, then they are surely likewise stretched having retreated just to the other side of the Dnieper River. Kherson may represent a critical weakness in the ongoing Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory.


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Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.

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