Covert Kherson resistance fighters undermined the Russian occupiers

Ihor stands on rubble in a parking garage in the city of Kherson that he says was hit by Ukrainian artillery after he and other resistance fighters reported the location of Russian military vehicles.  (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)
Ihor stands on rubble in a parking garage in the city of Kherson that he says was hit by Ukrainian artillery after he and other resistance fighters reported the location of Russian military vehicles. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

Remark

KHERSON, Ukraine — Ihor didn’t even know the first name of the person who contacted him. The man said he was a member of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces and wanted to know if Ihor was interested in helping fight the Russians occupying his town of Kherson.

“Sign me up,” Ihor replied.

For months, the two maintained an encrypted communication through the Telegram messaging app. Sometimes Ihor was asked to help locate locations from which the Russians were firing artillery. Other times, he sent the man, who asked to be called Smoke, the positions of Russian troops, armored vehicles and ammunition supplies.

In August, Ihor was given a more dangerous task by Smoke. A stash of weapons was hidden somewhere in Kherson, and Ihor had to bury them in another location and wait for the signal. Smoke told him that Ihor could eventually be called upon to take up one of the guns and assist Ukrainian soldiers if the battle for Kherson turned into street fighting and small sabotage groups were needed.

“There were many people with guns all over the city waiting for the right time to use them,” Ihor said. He declined to give his last name out of concern for his safety, and Smoke asked to be identified only by his call sign due to his work with special forces.

During more than eight months of Russian occupation, an underground resistance movement formed in Kherson, the only regional capital that Vladimir Putin’s army managed to capture since the invasion began last February.

Stories of brave Ukrainian citizens standing up against the invading soldiers are rife during the war. But Kherson, occupied since early March, was a unique hub for resistance activities where many civilians worked closely with handlers from the Ukrainian security services.

Aid from within the occupied territories – sometimes beyond the reach of Ukraine’s missiles and artillery – has proved crucial for Kiev to carry out some of its most brutal attacks, including on a Crimean airport that Moscow seized in 2014. illegally annexed.

In Kherson and in the occupied city of Melitopol, about 140 miles to the east, there have been mysterious explosions during the war that killed or injured Russian-installed authorities. Those blasts are believed to be the work of resistance fighters, also known as partisans, or Ukrainian special forces working behind enemy lines. Sometimes bombs exploded in cars of occupying officials or in their homes.

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People often did not know which of their neighbors or colleagues were also resistance fighters. In interviews, two resistance fighters claimed that they had managed to kill a few drunk Russians walking alone in the street by stabbing them. Those claims could not be verified. But mostly the partisans were given nonviolent assignments, resistance fighters and army officers said, such as hiding weapons or explosives in a particular location, identifying collaborators, or reporting the whereabouts of Russian soldiers and their equipment. That information was then used to direct Ukrainian artillery fire.

In Kherson, it all led to a subtle uprising that the Ukrainian army leaned on as the southern front line moved closer and closer to the city, finally forcing the Russians to retreat last week. Now that the city of Kherson is free of Russian soldiers, the resistance movement is surfacing.

This week in the central square, Smoke, wearing a balaclava, ran up to Ihor and hugged him tightly.

“The most important thing to me is that people stayed alive,” Smoke said. “This worried me the most. But they survived and, thank God, that’s the most important thing.”

There was a time when Ihor wasn’t sure he would.

There was another person he and Smoke worked with who was also tasked with burying guns, Ihor said. That man was caught by the Russians and, after being beaten, finally gave the location where he would meet Ihor. Ihor was subsequently captured as well, he said, and spent 11 days in August in a detention center where Russian guards tortured their captives.

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When Ihor first returned to prison, accompanied by Washington Post reporters, he struggled to hold back tears. Tatyana, a 74-year-old woman who lived next to the detention center, said she could hear men screaming every day. “I never wanted to see this place again, but coming back like this is kind of funny,” Ihor said. Some people standing outside asked Ihor if he had been kept there.

“I was there too,” says a man.

“Who wasn’t?” Ihor responded.

Since Ihor was still in contact with Smoke, who was stationed outside in nearby Ukrainian-controlled Mykolaiv, the Russians released him, saying they would monitor any text exchanges between the two. They asked Ihor to send screenshots of their conversation whenever there was an update — and threatened his life if he didn’t cooperate.

But Smoke and Ihor had agreed on a subtle code that could serve as a warning, such as responding to a message with “ok” instead of “okay”.

Ihor was still taking risks after that. In September, he noticed that the Russians had stationed several transport trucks in a parking lot near the center of Kherson. Ihor walked past the building with a phone to his ear, pretending to be on a call as his camera recorded what was inside. Two days later the place was hit by artillery.

Several resistance fighters told The Post they had reported the location, allowing Ukrainian forces to confirm it was a worthy target.

A member of Ukraine’s special services, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said he acted as a liaison to several informants during the occupation, which required an assessment of what each could do . A person with a car could drive around and mark locations of troops and weapons. Another overlooking a main road could report on the movements of the Russians.

“For example, if a bridge or an important communication hub, such as power lines, is blown up, it may have happened with our help,” said the handler.

“We are talking about valuable equipment, not just armored personnel carriers, but command and staff vehicles, communications vehicles, air defense or electronic warfare,” the handler added. “The destruction of what is expensive and available in small quantities can knock out the Russians and give our forces a certain tactical advantage in some parts of the front.”

Some members of this internal resistance were trained and prepared before Russia ever invaded — just in case, the handler said.

Loss of the city of Kherson shatters Putin’s war aims in Ukraine

Others were unlikely partisans, such as Iryna, a 58-year-old woman who worked for the local government. Iryna, who refused to give her last name out of concern for her safety, had contacts in the SBU, Ukraine’s main internal security agency, and regularly provided them with information about how the occupation authorities were organized and who was working with the Russians. They also had their own code. Once she even sent a message to her daughter in Bulgaria to forward to her supervisors.

One day some men whom Iryna described as “fellow partisans” came to her house and asked to bury some things in her garden. She agreed and covered the spot with tomatoes. When Russian soldiers searched her home, she claimed she was just a woman who helped cook for the neighborhood.

Her SBU acquaintances visited her earlier this week and dug up what was buried in the garden. “They told me it was all about making explosives,” she said.

Some of the resistance was more public, but for a psychological effect. An organization called the Yellow Ribbon regularly painted locations around the city and marked Russian establishments with a yellow ribbon symbol or the Ukrainian letter “i”. They targeted Russian banks, places where the Russians handed out passports and where referendum votes on Russian annexation were prepared. The Russians would cover the paint, but Yellow Ribbon would just mark it again.

The organizers tagged the home of Kirill Stremousov, a notorious Moscow-installed official in Kherson who recently died in a car accident. They defaced Russian billboards that said “Russia is here forever” or that “Ukrainians and Russians are one”. And they posted photos of “collaborators” eating at a restaurant in town or walking down the street.

“Then after that they all started walking around with bodyguards,” said the Yellow Ribbon organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.

One of the goals, he said, was to make the Russians paranoid about the resistance that existed around them. Sometimes people took a picture of two Russian soldiers walking from behind, and Yellow Ribbon posted it on their Telegram channel, warning, “We’re watching you.”

One of the Yellow Ribbon posters in the city referred to HIMARS, a weapons system that the United States supplied to Ukraine. “If HIMARS can’t reach you,” the poster said, “a partisan will.”

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