It’s probably fair to describe travel to liberated Kherson at this time as something of a hardship posting. At the time of writing I am sitting knock kneed over my laptop, hammering out these words at a quarter to seven in the morning, freezing cold in my concrete bunker of a hotel room, wearing a military fleece to bed at night because it was so damned cold. I kept the curtains closed because that would stop light from the room getting out and hence alerting Russian drones to a location that might need to be shelled. Now this probably all seems a bit paranoid but given that the rest of the city is absolutely in the dark all night every night - and I mean pitch black; nobody turns a single light on - I thought I ought to act in the same spirit. Unfortunately the room’s radiator is behind the black-out curtains, so the consequence of my acting in this way is that the heat couldn’t get into the room and the temperature descended ever further as the night drew on.
Before I went to bed, my colleague and I had a video chat - at least the internet here seems to work. He’s been in Kherson for a while, and he grimly advised me that the Russians like to send in the shells all night, every night, on a pretty arbitrary basis, at predetermined times every couple of hours, just to keep the civilian population in a maximum state of terror. They’re not really aiming at any military targets in Kherson; they just seem to want to keep the city in a state of tension and siege. I’m not sure what the goal of all this is. Maybe the idea is to depopulate the city, in which case they have mostly succeeded. But why? Is the idea that they sneak back in and take it again at some point? In which case they will be taking back a city that they have completely destroyed. What is the point of that? Moreover random shelling of civilian buildings won’t cause the city to be deserted militarily; it will have the opposite effect. Now virtually everyone you bump into here, apart from the occasional hardy and stoic local who refuses to leave notwithstanding the local military commander’s advice, is a soldier. So Kherson is absolutely armed to the teeth from the Ukrainian side, far more so than from the Russian side, I sense.
You will recall that the reason for the Russian evacuation of Kherson from occupation, to the south side of the Dnieper River, back in November 2022 - it seems an age ago now - was precisely because they couldn’t maintain their extenuated supply lines this far west and as far as I can tell, nothing has changed. They even blew up the Nova Kakhovka dam in June 2023, over which the main road, the M14, from Kherson to Melitopol passed, precisely to cut off the south of the Dnieper from the north, so as to create a hard front line along the length of the Dnieper River that the advancing Ukrainian Armed Forces, with vastly superior supply lines to this region, could not breach. The logic of that manoeuvre has not really changed, and it is unimaginable that, having cut all links with the territory north of the Dnieper River, the Russians could now change their minds and decide to retake Kherson, a city that have thoroughly ruined and that is far more heavily garrisoned and fortified than it was when they evacuated it.
Therefore the purpose of the Russian military attacks on Kherson right now seem to have no purpose at all. That is surely why the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office is classifying them as war crimes and why the world properly stands in horror at what is happening to my beautiful, wonderful, historical city of Kherson in the face of the most dreadful and mindless Russian military aggression.
My colleague disconcertingly informed me that by the time you hear the air raid sirens in Kherson it’s too late, because the shells periodically incoming from the south bank of the Dnieper travel so quickly that the air raid siren is sounded only after impact. It merely warns you of the possibility of more shells incoming. There hardly seems any need for warnings of that kind; you can hear boom-boom-thud-thud-bang-bang all night. I’d be very grateful if they’d just turn the air raid warning sirens off. They don’t make a lot of sense to me. My colleague spun his mobile ‘phone round to show him sitting in the darkness with a cigarette with various red flashes in the background, which I knew to be impacts from Krasnopol artillery systems, the conventional shelling systems used by the Russians with whose accurate range they are easy targets. He’s suggested I go and stay with him because it’s “safer”. In my view he has a strange definition of the idea of safer. Actually I haven’t seen any shelling where I am at all since I have arrived here. All I’ve heard is a series of distant thuds so in fact I feel relatively safe precisely where I am. The biggest danger I think in the centre is from pieces of flying glass, which is why the windows of my room are taped up.
Last night my Mum asked me whether I could go to sleep in my body armour. I don’t think she’s ever worn body armour. This is not really practical: lying in bed with a sheet of lead strapped to your chest and a tight-fitting steel helmet jammed over your cranium. It’s not exactly comfortable. Notwithstanding the boom-boom-thump-thump and miscellaneous wailing of air raid sirens all night, I did in fact get a comfortable night’s sleep. The only problem now is that of course my hotel has no facilities whatsoever because I am the only guest. There is no breakfast, no room service, no restaurant (it’s all boarded up), no coffee machine in the room, and no coffee. This last point is rather serious, because I really don’t like to venture outside without a cup of coffee washed down me first.
Dawn is breaking; some stern men in military vehicles are starting to drive around; I don’t know what time anything officially opens in this place but I’m going to try to take a shower (they do have hot water) and then I’m going to venture out for some coffee and try to figure out what to do with the day. Anything’s possible in this crazy house.