The Kremlin “is facing increasing partisan activity in southern Ukraine,” Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said at a conference in Washington, DC, last week.
The US believes Russia does not have enough troops in Kherson to effectively occupy and control the region, a US official said, especially after withdrawing troops from the area to fight east in Donbas. Another US official told CNN that this move may have given Ukrainian partisans a window to attack locally installed Russian officials.
Ukraine has also conducted limited counter-attacks near Kherson, putting further pressure on Russian forces.
The region is critical to Russia’s hold on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and controls access to the Crimean peninsula. It is unclear how many Russian troops are in or near Kherson, but an occupation against a hostile local population requires many more soldiers than a peaceful occupation of territory.
Russia’s leaders have prioritized the military campaign at the expense of any semblance of government.
“It’s clearly not something they can invest in right now,” said a US official.
Trio of assassination attempts
The first attack in Kherson took place on June 16, when an explosion shattered the windows of a white Audi Q7 SUV. The vehicle was badly damaged, but the target of the attack survived.
According to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Eugeniy Sobolev, the pro-Russian head of the prison service in occupied Kherson, has been hospitalized after the attack.
Less than a week later, a second pro-Russian official was attacked in Kherson. This time the attack succeeded.
On June 24, Dmitry Savluchenko, the pro-Russian official in charge of the Ministry of Youth and Sports for the Kherson region, was assassinated, RIA Novosti reported.
Serhii Khlan, an adviser to the head of Ukraine’s Kherson Civil Military Administration, called Savluchenko a “traitor” and said he was blown up in his car.
Khlan proclaimed: “Our partisans have one more victory”.
On Tuesday, the car of a third pro-Russian official in Kherson was set on fire, according to the Russian state news agency Tass, although the official was not injured. It is not clear who carried out the attacks.
There appears to be no central command leading an organized resistance, officials said, but the attacks have increased in frequency, especially in the Kherson region, which Russia occupied in March when it launched its invasion.
A source familiar with Western intelligence was more skeptical about whether the resistance could evolve from partisan attacks into a more organized campaign capable of controlling the attacks and issuing weapons and instructions.
So far, the resistance has not affected Russian control of Kherson, the source familiar with Western intelligence stressed.
But in the long run, the US thinks Russia will eventually face a counter-insurgency from the local Ukrainian population.
“I think Russia will face great challenges in trying to establish stable governance for these regions, as likely collaborators — more prominent ones — will be killed and others will live in fear,” said director Michael Kofman for Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-based think tank.
It was an ordinary day in the shops
Making Russian governance difficult
On Tuesday, Russia-appointed authorities in the Kherson region arrested the city’s elected Ukrainian mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, hours before announcing plans for a referendum to join Russia. The pro-Russian military-civilian government accused Kolychaiev of encouraging people to “believe in the return of neo-Nazism”.
Kolykhaeiv’s adviser said Russian authorities also seized computer hard drives, searched safes and searched for documents. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian military said “invaders” had broken into Kherson State University and kidnapped its rector.
Russian troops have gradually adopted the ruble as the local currency and issued Russian passports.
In Mariupol, pro-Russian authorities celebrated the so-called “liberation” of the city in May. The Russian-like Donetsk People’s Republic changed road signs from Ukrainian to Russian and installed a statue of an elderly woman grabbing a Soviet flag. Meanwhile, the iconic Mariupol sign painted in Ukrainian colors was repainted in Russian colors.
Despite Russia’s efforts to eliminate Ukrainian history, ethnicity and nationalism from Kherson and other occupied territories, the Ukrainian people are showing a willingness to resist.
“The occupiers and local collaborators are making increasingly loud statements about [the] The Kherson region is joining Russia,” a Ukrainian official said last week, “but every day more and more Ukrainian flags and inscriptions appear in the city.”
Attempts to forcibly erase Ukrainian culture and dictate Russian hegemony have had the opposite effect in some cases, a senior NATO official said.
“There have been reports of assassination attempts on some of the quislings appointed to be governors, mayors [and] business leaders,” said the NATO official. A quisling is a traitor who works with an enemy force, named after a Norwegian WWII official who collaborated with the Nazis.
“That almost certainly has deterred Russian sympathizers or Russians or whoever they bring in to take these posts from taking them at all.”
As an occupying force in Kherson — particularly one bent on maintaining control — Russia must provide basic services in the areas it controls, such as clean water and waste collection. But the US believes acts of resistance make it difficult to provide governance and basic services, one of the US officials said.
The US knew there was a “serious resistance network” in Ukraine that could take over if and when the military failed, the official said. Before the invasion, the US expected the insurgency to arise, coupled with guerrilla warfare, after a brief period of fierce fighting in which Russia prevailed. But the war has been dragging on for months now, with many analysts predicting a much longer conflict.
A senior US official warned a Russian counterpart before the conflict that they would face an uprising if they invaded Ukraine and tried to occupy territory, the official said. But the warning fell on deaf ears and the invasion continued, driven in part by hubris and poor intelligence.
Russia believed that its troops would be greeted with open arms and swiftly crush any resistance, false fantasies that quickly disintegrated but did little to change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculations.
Kofman says it’s unclear what kind of governance framework Russia will try to create to exert control, but there’s no doubt it plans to keep the areas. After protracted, bloody uprisings in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Kremlin anticipated another possible uprising in Ukraine.
“They saw it coming,” Kofman said.
“That’s why they set up filtration camps and expelled a large part of the population from the occupied territories.”