Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result
Winston S. Churchill
After I had checked into my hotel yesterday afternoon in Mykolaïv and calmed down, happy still to be alive and to take stock of my situation, I felt an inevitable feeling of elation: I had been under attack in a war zone and I had calmly taken all the rational manoeuvres to remove myself from a situation of danger. I had immediately booked every conceivable bus and train ticket out of Kherson as I heard the relentless explosions across the city, and then when I had finally found a car to take me out of the city and to safety I calmly cancelled all those tickets and I had behaved rationally and I was still alive and unharmed. So what happens then is you become terribly excited at what you have been through. And you go and eat a huge meal of soup with cheese and steak - one of the best restaurants in all Ukraine is in Mykolaïv. I think the waitress liked me and wanted me to ask her for her number but I was shy or exhausted or something. Or maybe I’m just vain. Anyway I’ll see her the next time I’m back in town which won’t be long. Then I went off to drink far too much which is a common thing to do when you’ve just extracted yourself from a war zone. And then the inevitable low followed the elation and I collapsed into bed and slept like a boar because you don’t sleep well when you’re staying in central Kherson and there are shells landing round you all night.
But I also last night reflected more carefully on what I had seen. It became very obvious to me during the admittedly brief period I was there that the Russians are targeting only very specific buildings in Kherson, and that they have turned this into an ethnic civil war when it shouldn’t be one: a subject I want to return to later. What they have been doing is firing their really quite accurate artillery at buildings associated with Ukrainian-owned businesses or institutions, and not at buildings associated with Russian-owned buildings and institutions. Hence compare the condition of the following three bars in central Kherson:
The first two are Ukrainian-owned (this is reasonably obvious, I suppose, from the the use of the English language in the signage; they are or were intended to attract foreigners); the third (the bar that overcharged and that is right by the waterfront) is totally untouched and continues to do business to this day. Although there are no customers, I think they are just waiting for the moment the Russians come back into Kherson and then it will be back to business as usual.
Also one of my colleagues commented to me that the new car dealerships throughout town never seem to get scratched. Nor does my hotel which, the staff proudly informed me, was open throughout the occupation and since the liberation. In other words in the last two years it never closed its doors and it is standing straight whereas every building in the vicinity has been completely decimated. By the way, every other hotel in Kherson has been destroyed; this is the only one left. The Russians don’t want (foreign) visitors to Kherson who might bare witness to their crimes, so they blow up the hotels: something I have seen elsewhere including in Zaporizhzhia. But this hotel survives, I assume because it is owned by ethnic Russian people. (It has that rather gloomy air I associate with Russian hotels; in Ukrainian hotels you might get a smile or a few words of English out of the hotel staff.)
So what the Russians are really doing here is running a mafia state with artillery, as one of my colleagues last night put it so aptly: they are running a sort of extortion racket against Russian people in Kherson. Either you tacitly support us somehow, quite possibly including the payment of money; or we shell your property and there’ll be nothing left of you. This is not indiscriminate shelling; it is quite discriminating and that is very obvious as you walk around town. So the Russians are using artillery shelling as a technique of creating a divide between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians; boiling up suspicions and hatreds between them; and at the same time run an extortion racket down the barrels of (lots of very large) guns.
We see the same patterns in the gas stations, the railway station (associated with Ukrainian Railways, a Ukrainian central government institution - destroyed) and the bus station (more used by Russians - relatively unharmed). There is purpose in all this Russian shelling of Kherson that goes quite beyond military objectives. It is almost a form of criminal government at a distance: those citizens of Kherson who do what we say get off lightly; those who oppose us get shelled. Those who speak Russian may survive; those who speak Ukrainian may die. The Russian message is something like this: we may come back one day, and we are making it clear now who is in favour and who is not so you had all better behave yourselves because in our intermittent rounds of shelling we will be punishing those who transgress our laws. We are still in charge of Kherson, they are trying to say, even though we are now forced back just across the river.
This is blatant criminality of the most horrendous kind: using an entire civilian city to sew ethnic foment by selectively assassinating people with different types of military equipment depending upon their imagined ethnicity or their supposed loyalty to the Russian flag. This renders the case for internationalisation of Kherson as a free territory or city whose independence is guaranteed by NATO, above ethnic differences, all the more imperative and essential. Otherwise Russian military tactics will create potentially permanent ethnic divisions in Kherson where before they never existed. This is an appalling way to conduct a war, at reminds me of the darkest and most gruesome episodes from the Balkans, the spectre of ethnic cleansing rearing its ugly head once more. The Russians must be stopped in their ethnic cleansing of Kherson, and the delicate social fabric of southern Ukraine must be reconstructed and their barbaric tactics reversed.