Kyiv, Ukraine — In a growing challenge to Russia’s hold on the occupied territories of southeastern Ukraine, guerrillas loyal to Kiev are killing pro-Moscow officials, blowing up bridges and trains, and aiding the Ukrainian military by identifying key targets.
The expanding resistance has eroded the Kremlin’s control over those areas and threatened its plans to hold referendums in several cities as a step toward annexation by Russia.
“Our aim is to make the lives of the Russian occupiers unbearable and to use all means to derail their plans,” said Andriy, a 32-year-old coordinator of the guerrilla movement in the southern region of Kherson.
Andriy, a member of the resistance group Zhovta Strichka — or “Yellow Ribbon” — spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that he not be fully identified to avoid being tracked down by the Russians. The group takes its name from one of Ukraine’s two national colors, and its members use ribbons of that shade to mark potential targets for guerrilla attacks.
Ukrainian forces recently used a US-supplied multiple rocket launcher known as HIMARS to hit a strategic bridge over the Dnieper River in Kherson, severing the Russians’ main supply link. The city of 500,000, taken by Russian troops early in the war, has been overrun with resistance leaflets, threatening Moscow-backed officials.
Just before the attack on the bridge, pamphlets appeared that read: “If HIMARS can’t do it, a partisan will help.”
“We give the Ukrainian army precise coordinates for different targets, and the help of the guerrillas makes the new long-range weapons, especially HIMARS, even more powerful,” Andriy told the AP. “We are invisible behind Russian lines, and this is our strength.”
As Ukrainian forces ramp up attacks in the region and recapture some areas west of the Dnieper River, guerrilla activity has also increased.
They coordinate with the Special Operations Forces of the Ukrainian Army, which helps them develop strategies and tactics. Those troops also select targets and set up a website with tips on organizing resistance, preparing ambushes and evading arrest. A network of weapons depots and secret hideouts was established in the occupied territories.
Bombs have been placed near administrative buildings, officials’ homes and even on their routes to work.
An explosive device placed on a tree went off as a vehicle carrying Kherson prison leader Yevgeny Sobolev passed, though he survived the attack. A police vehicle was hit by shrapnel, seriously injuring two officers, one of whom later died. The deputy head of the local administration in Nova Kakhovka died of his injuries after being shot over the weekend.
Guerrillas have repeatedly attempted to assassinate Vladimir Saldo, the head of the Russian-backed temporary administration of the Kherson region, praising a bounty of 1 million hryvnias (about $25,000). His assistant, Pavel Slobodchikov, was shot and killed in his vehicle, and another officer, Dmytry Savluchenko, was killed by a car bomb.
The attacks prompted Moscow to send anti-guerrilla units to Kherson, Saldo said.
“Every day, special forces from Russia detect two or three caches of weapons for terrorist activities,” Balance said on his messaging app channel. “The seizure of weapons helps reduce the threat of sabotage.”
At the beginning of the occupation, thousands of residents held peaceful protests. But the Russian army quickly disbanded them and arrested activists, radicalizing the resistance.
Wedding photographer turned activist Oleksandr Kharchikov, 41, from Skadovsk, said he was beaten and tortured after being arrested during a Russian security campaign.
“The Russians tortured me for a long time. They beat me with a baseball bat, pinched my fingers with pliers and tortured me with electric shocks,” Kharchikov said in a telephone interview. “I had a concussion and a broken rib, but I didn’t give them any information, and that saved me.”
Kharchikov spent 155 days under Russian occupation until he escaped.
“The repression is increasing. They are creating intolerable conditions for the Ukrainians, making it increasingly difficult to survive under the Russian occupation,” he told the AP.
The Russians offered 10,000 rubles ($165) to anyone applying for Russian citizenship to strengthen their grip on the region, he said.
Moscow introduced the ruble, set up Russian mobile networks and shut down Ukrainian television in the area. Giant screens showing Russian TV broadcasts have been placed in the main squares of cities.
Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov, who also spent a long time in Russian captivity, told the AP that about 500 Ukrainian activists were detained, many of whom were tortured. Some disappeared months after their arrest.
In May and June, guerrillas blew up two railway bridges in Melitopol and derailed two Russian military trains, Fedorov said.
“The resistance movement pursues three goals: to destroy Russian weapons and means to supply them, to discredit and intimidate the occupiers and their associates, and to inform Ukrainian special services about enemy positions,” he added.
Russia responded by bolstering patrols and regularly looking for those suspected of guerrilla links. During such raids, they check phones and arrest them with Ukrainian symbols or photos of relatives in military uniforms.
“In a mopping operation, the Russians close off the entire neighborhood, stop traffic to and from the neighborhood and methodically move from one apartment to another. If they find Ukrainian symbols or a link to the Ukrainian military, they put all family members in a filter camp,” Fedorov said.
“At best, people are told, ‘Get out of here if you’re against Russia,’ but it also happens that some people disappear,” he said.
More than 60,000 people have left Melitopol’s pre-war population of 150,000.
Pro-Moscow officials are preparing for a possible referendum on the accession of Melitopol and other occupied territories to Russia, conducting security raids and handing out Russian passports, Fedorov said.
“We will thwart the Russian referendum. We will not allow voting under Russian gun barrels,” he said, adding that no more than 10% of the population sympathizes with Moscow and half have fled.
Guerrillas have tied yellow ribbons to voting buildings to warn residents that they could be targeted by bombs during the vote.
The resistance ranges from radical activists to teachers and retirees who sing Ukrainian songs in parks and secretly wear yellow and blue ribbons.
“The Russians expected to receive flowers, but they were confronted with the fact that most people consider themselves Ukrainians and are willing to resist in various forms – from gathering information to burning and blowing up the occupiers” said Oleksii Aleksandrov, who owned a restaurant in the southern port of Mariupol.
In a recent gesture of resistance in Mariupol, a young man clad in a Ukrainian flag stood on a street next to the theater destroyed by Russian bombs. The photo spread through Ukrainian media and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised him in a speech to the nation.
“It was very brave to do and I want to thank him for his action,” Zelenskyy said. “This man is one of many people who are waiting for Ukraine’s comeback and will not accept the occupation under any circumstances.”
While pro-Moscow sentiment is strong in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking industrial heartland, the Donbas, a guerrilla movement has sprung up there as well.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said six Russian troops were injured last month when their vehicle was blown up by guerrillas in the city of Sievierodonetsk shortly after its seizure by guerrillas. They also attacked the railways, disrupting Russian ammunition shipments and other supplies.
“The guerrillas have acted quite successfully,” Haidai told the AP. “They didn’t just distribute leaflets. They have also destroyed infrastructure facilities. It helps enormously to slow down the Russian attacks and advance.”
Observers say the guerrilla movement varies by region and that it is in both sides’ interests to exaggerate its size.
“The Russians are doing it to justify their repression on the occupied territories, while the Ukrainians are trying to demoralize Russian forces and glorify their victories,” said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kiev-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies. “It’s hard to believe that the stories about Ukrainians feeding Russian soldiers with poisoned pies, but sometimes myths work better than facts.”
Yuras Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.
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