Is Putin’s first new border coming? Why Cherson is important – and what Russia is planning

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Von: Florian Naumann

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Ukraine War: A Russian military convoy in March in Kherson Oblast. © IMAGO / SNA

The first annexation in the Ukraine war is in the offing. Russia is working with a “regime of fear” in Cherson. The city is important to Putin – but offers resistance.

Kyiv/Munich – Complete control of eastern and southern Ukraine. This is Russia’s declared goal in the current major offensive. In the meantime, in the city of Cherson, the Kremlin already seems to want to create facts – permanently. The administration set up by the Kremlin wants to separate Cherson from Ukraine. Completely open and official.

So it’s about the first attempts at redrawing the border. Whether and how this can work is still an open question on many levels. Cherson plays an unusual role in the Ukraine war. Apparently, however, the city is not pro-Russian. Russia’s strategy is also unclear. A “referendum” and the proclamation of a “People’s Republic of Cherson” are under discussion. Kyiv called this variant a “classic”. In the end, however, the new local rulers even seemed to reject this intermediate step.

However, it is clear why Moscow has cast its eyes on southern Ukraine. And other parts of a strategy are also obvious: the Kremlin recently spoke openly of a fragmentation of Ukraine. In turn, they also put up military resistance in Cherson. The complex situation around the big city at a glance:

  • “Treason”? Cherson fell first – but resists
  • Russian “Fear Regime”? The situation in Kherson
  • The further plans of the Kremlin for Kherson – referendum and rubles
  • Cherson, Crimea and Odessa: why the big city is so important

Russia War in southern Ukraine: Cherson fell first – but resists

Already on March 2, Russia took Cherson – surprisingly quickly. Even OSCE observers were still in town. President Volodymyr Zelenskyj seemed to suspect “treason” from his own secret service. In early April, he stripped two SBU brigadier generals of their military ranks. According to Selenskyj, one was head of the SBU in Cherson. He did not reveal any further details: “I don’t have time to deal with traitors,” the president said in one of his video messages.

Apparently, Russia does not have an easy game. Since then, Cherson has repeatedly made headlines with large-scale protests by civil society. In mid-March, according to a local TV station, Russian soldiers fired “warning shots” as thousands of people demonstrated in the central Freedom Square. They waved Ukrainian flags and shouted “Kherson belongs to Ukraine” and “Glory to Ukraine,” the AFP news agency reported. As protesters walked past a column of Russian army vehicles, some demonstrators shouted “fascists” and “go home” in Russian. According to media reports, protests continued last weekend (April 23/24).

War in Ukraine: The current situation in Kherson

The Austrian daily newspaper, among others, writes about the establishment of a “regime of fear” by the Russian occupiers in Cherson The standard: Journalists, clergy or activists were arrested. Allegedly, “re-education” of teachers and lecturers in camps in Crimea is also planned. Ukraine recently reported that 35 out of 49 heads of local government units had been kidnapped.

A volunteer on the Ukrainian side, who is taking care of refugees and the military at the front 20 kilometers north of Cherson, also told the newspaper about the “disappearance” of several people. This information could not be independently verified. The woman told that Standard, the Russian occupiers did not want to let any people out of Cherson. If so, then women will be able to escape. At the same time, Russia is trying to recruit city dwellers as soldiers. Allegedly without success so far.

To this end, Ukraine is apparently attempting a counteroffensive. Ukrainian media reported several explosions in Cherson on Thursday night. Russia later announced that several rocket attacks had been repelled. Kyiv initially did not confirm this account.

Ukraine War: How Russia intends to proceed in Cherson

“The question of the return of the Kherson region to Nazi Ukraine is out of the question,” Kirill Stremousov from the administration loyal to Moscow told the Russian state agency Ria Novosti on Thursday. “That’s impossible.” Putin’s governor also announced the introduction of the ruble as official currency on May 1. The area will flourish economically.

The Secretary of the Ukrainian Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, described the plans as “classic Russian practice”. “They will try for some time to introduce a currency or pseudo-currency for these areas,” he said, according to the Unian agency. But in view of the expected resistance from citizens, this will be “very short-lived”.

There has also been speculation for some time about a referendum carried out by Russia. Danilov expected a vote and the proclamation of a “Kherson People’s Republic”. Regional ruler Stremoussow denied such plans – but seemed to announce an annexation. Selenskyj wants to prevent a referendum: A vote will mean the end of the negotiations with Russia, he recently declared. Ukraine would not recognize a vote anyway. Kyiv described a hypothetical referendum as “legally and internationally meaningless”.

A paradox: residents of Cherson believe that Russia has so far refrained from atrocities precisely because a referendum is planned. The situation in the region around the city – according to Moscow, it has been said that it has been completely under Russian control for a few days – is “much worse and much more tragic,” a local journalist told the newspaper Editorial network Germany.

Ukraine War: Cherson – why the city north of Crimea is strategically important

Ukraine War: A Russian soldier on the North Crimean Canal in Kherson Oblast.
Ukraine War: A Russian soldier on the North Crimean Canal in Kherson Oblast. © Imago/SNA

It is no coincidence that Russia is particularly interested in southern and eastern Ukraine. While the Donbass in the east is probably mainly interesting because of its role as an official reason for the war and because of its raw material deposits, in the south it is about infrastructure and a means of exerting pressure on Ukraine.

Cherson, located on the Dnieper River, is one of the bridgeheads in the direction of Crimea. Moscow wants to ensure land access to the peninsula, but also its water supply. The North Crimean Canal, essential for the irrigation of Crimea, runs through Kherson Oblast. At the same time, capturing the ports could severely damage Ukraine’s exports economically. Cherson could also be the starting point for such a campaign: Odessa is almost 200 kilometers west of Cherson.

Indirectly, a fragmentation of Ukraine into many small territories could also be part of Russia’s plan. “The result of the policy of the West and the Kiev regime it controls can only lead to the disintegration of Ukraine into several states,” Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev recently told the daily Rossiskaya Gazette. The possible calculus: The more confusing the situation, the greater the number of fronts, the more grueling and threatening the situation for the government around Zelenskyj. Above all, Moscow probably has in mind the formation of puppet “people’s republics” – also in Cherson. (fn with material from AFP)

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