How Citizen Spies Foiled Putin’s Grand Plan for One Ukrainian City

On a foggy morning a few months ago, Valentyn Dmytrovych Yermolenko, an aging Ukrainian fisherman with a bad back and horrible knees, puttered down a narrow channel off the Dnipro River, his inflatable dinghy cutting through the mist.

His city, Kherson, had been taken over by the Russian Army, and on the floor of his boat, concealed under a fishing net in a black plastic tub, Mr. Yermolenko had hidden three disassembled automatic rifles.

As he took a bend in the river, he recalled, a Russian patrol boat materialized in front of him. A commander standing on the deck in crisp camouflage barked: “Grandpa! Where are you going?”

After Mr. Yermolenko muttered something about getting fish for his wife, the commander ordered a search of the boat. A young soldier stomped aboard and went straight to the black plastic tub.

“What is this?” he asked.

Mr. Yermolenko, 64, said he was so scared that he wet his pants.

Kherson, at the mouth of the Dnipro, near the Black Sea, was captured in the war’s first days. Russian officials soon declared it part of Russia forever.

Kherson’s occupation government, run by Russian military commanders and Ukrainian collaborators, wasted little time pulling down Ukrainian flags, taking over Ukrainian schools, trucking in crates of Russian rubles, even importing Russian families. Perhaps nowhere else in Ukraine did Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, devote so much money and violence, the carrot and the stick, to bend a city to his imperial will.

But it did not work.

Guided by contacts in the Ukrainian security services, an assembly of ordinary citizens formed themselves into a grass-roots resistance movement. In dozens of interviews, residents and Ukrainian officials described how retirees like Mr. Yermolenko — along with students, mechanics, grandmothers, and even a wealthy couple who were fixing up their yacht and got trapped in the city for the better part of a year — became spirited partisans for the Kherson underground. It was almost like something out of a spy movie.

They took clandestine videos of Russian troops and sent them to Ukrainian forces along with map coordinates. They used code names and passwords to circulate guns and explosives right under the Russians’ noses. Some even formed small attack teams that picked off Russian soldiers at night, making the fear and paranoia that settled over the city two-sided.

When the Russian Army hastily pulled out in mid-November, perhaps the biggest embarrassment so far to Mr. Putin’s war effort, Kherson became a powerful symbol. To allies questioning Ukraine’s resolve, and to Ukrainians themselves who had suffered so much misery and death and needed a glimmer of hope, Kherson showed what was possible.

Now that the Russian forces are gone and people feel free to talk about what they did and even brag a little, one message keeps emerging.

“I never questioned what we were doing,” said Dmytro Yevminov, the yacht owner whom Mr. Yermolenko recruited into hiding guns and sacks of grenades in various boatyards. “I never knew I loved my country so much.”

Mr. Yermolenko and his wife, Olena, might not seem like insurgent types.

Hovering over each other in their small kitchen, the rushing blue flame on the stove serving as the home’s only source of heat, they shoo each other away and shush each other, arguing over who is the bigger patriot.

“I’m the one who forced you to feel like this,” she said, laughing.

“Well,” Mr. Yermolenko sighed, “maybe this country didn’t give me everything I wanted. But it’s still my country.”

They met in Kherson in 1978. She was a clerk at a shipbuilding plant. He had been born in Belarus and had just exited the Soviet army.

He spied her sunbathing on a beach alongside the Dnipro River and soon they married, moving to a riverside Kherson neighborhood called the Island, where people make their living off the water one way or another: fishing, working at boatyards or at the shipbuilding plants, servicing marine engines. The Yermolenkos used to run a smoked-fish business but retired a few years ago. It was not long before their lives were upended.

On Feb. 24, the first day of the invasion, thousands of Russian troops poured into Kherson. Like in many other Ukrainian cities, local residents, some with military experience, banded together into a group known as a territorial defense force to try to repel Moscow’s army. Mr. Yermolenko and his teenage grandson, also named Valentyn, enlisted.

They had few weapons, mostly just some old hunting rifles. Worse, the Ukrainian military made a strategic decision to withdraw from Kherson, leaving the local fighters on their own.

They tried to ambush a Russian column a few days after the invasion but failed miserably, according to witnesses, leaving at least 18 militia members dead on the frozen ground. After that, the Kherson resistance changed tactics. It went underground.

Members of the local defense force and other civilians began to spy on Russian troops in the city. The Ukrainian security services encouraged this — within days of the war breaking out, they set up special channels on Telegram and other messaging services for people to funnel strategic tips.

The Yermolenkos volunteered to aggregate information from their neighborhood. Since they had been living on the Island for so long, they knew everyone, and Mr. Yermolenko maintained contacts within the Ukrainian military from his connections to the territorial defense force.

Every day, the Yermolenkos said they received dozens of videos, audio files and texts tracking the location of Russian troops moving through their city — how many there were, what kind of vehicles they were using and their direction of travel. All this was incredibly dangerous, but countless people were willing to do it.

“We had a grandma in a high-rise feeding us stuff,” Ms. Yermolenko, 65, said. “We had Dima and Oksana on the water in their sailboat watching the Russian river patrols. We had people everywhere.”

Their house, they said, became “a transmitter.”

The resistance movement would soon evolve. In the next few weeks, Ukrainian military commanders and intelligence agents based outside the city asked civilians whom they trusted, including the Yermolenkos, to do even more.

Life was getting grim. Kherson was running out of food. Stores were closed. People were out of work. Russian troops were searching for civilians who were spying on them; many residents shared disturbing stories of themselves or people they knew being dragged into torture chambers and subjected to electric shocks and sadistic beatings.

But the residents kept finding avenues of resistance. In mid-April, a rash of yellow ribbons mysteriously appeared all over Kherson, spray painted on buildings. It was a small act of defiance. But residents said that Russian soldiers were so enraged that they had stormed into hardware stores and demanded to see closed-circuit TV footage to find out who had been buying yellow paint.

As the weeks ticked away, Mr. Yermolenko became more careful in whom he confided, he said. Slowly, he struck up a friendship with Mr. Yevminov, a successful entrepreneur whose around-the-world sailboat trip went by the wayside. The two men huddled by the waterfront, pretending that they were staring at circles from fish jumps or talking about boats, and spied on Russian patrols prowling the river.

One day, Mr. Yermolenko, who tends not to express a lot of emotion, pulled Mr. Yevminov aside and said, “Will you feed my dogs if something happens to me?”

Mr. Yermolenko felt himself getting sucked into a more dangerous role. He said that he had started receiving coded messages from contacts within the resistance network about weapons. The messages were fragmentary — a code name, a location, a password. His job was to move assault rifles, bullets and grenades from one location to another.

Mr. Yermolenko, along with other members of Kherson’s partisan network and a Ukrainian military officer from the city, said in interviews that the weapons had passed from civilian to civilian. Eventually, they were handed over to undercover Ukrainian security agents who had filtered quietly back into Kherson or to members of the underground territorial defense force.

“The system was built like links in a chain,” said Oleksandr Samoylenko, head of Kherson’s regional council, who helped coordinate partisan activity from outside the city. “No person knew the next link, so if someone got caught, it wouldn’t compromise the whole operation.”

The Yermolenkos’ grandson, 18 at the time, was itching to get involved. He joined a cell with three other young men that stalked Russian soldiers at night. The Russian troops were sloppy, he said, often walking around the waterfront in the dark while checking their phones, oblivious to the glow they were casting.

He said that his team had killed at least 10 Russians; his claim could not be independently verified, but interviews with other members of the local defense force supported his account that he had killed enemy soldiers.

“In the beginning,” he admitted, “we were terrified.” One friend, he said, swallowed a glass of vodka before every attack.

But soon enough, Valentyn said, they became steeled to shooting Russian soldiers at close range and plucking weapons off their still warm bodies.

By summer, Mr. Yermolenko was watching his city get Russified. Propaganda billboards on Kherson’s busiest boulevards were decorated with bands of white, blue and red, in the spirit of the Russian flag, which many locals derisively called “the Aquafresh.”

Acts of defiance kept popping up. When the occupation government severed trade links with Ukraine and then instructed transportation companies in Kherson to haul stolen Ukrainian grain to Russia, some refused, which was no small risk.

“They assaulted our country,” said Roman Denysenko, the owner of a trucking company who was later kidnapped. “I wasn’t going to work with them. Period.”

Russian families began to move into apartments vacated by fleeing Ukrainians. Russian children, who residents said were the children of intelligence agents, became a common sight in Kherson’s parks and supermarkets. But Moscow’s hold on Kherson was getting shakier.

Mr. Samoylenko, the Kherson regional council head, said that civilians working with the army had sent in real-time surveillance information that enabled Ukrainian forces to bomb a meeting of high-level collaborators in mid-September and a hotel full of Russian intelligence officers a few weeks later. He cited two factors behind those successes: American precision artillery and partisan intelligence.

“It’s only because of the residents that the liberation happened so quickly,” he said.

Flush with new, more powerful weapons, the Ukrainian military ratcheted up the pressure. They blew up bridges across the Dnipro River. Ground forces advanced across the countryside and pressed in on three sides. By early November, the Russian forces had begun to flee.

“We didn’t know what was happening out there,” Mr. Yermolenko said.

But on Nov. 11, a repairman banged on his gate and joyously announced that Ukrainian forces had arrived. Mr. and Ms. Yermolenko drove to Kherson’s main square, joining the crowds of stunned, happy people celebrating the city’s liberation.

“You wouldn’t believe what I did for the first time in my life,” he said. “I kissed a policeman.”

The Yermolenkos felt that it was important to recognize everyone in the neighborhood who had participated in the resistance. So, on a recent morning, two dozen partisans, men and women from their early 20s to mid 70s, wrapped in heavy coats and woolen hats, stood in their yard. The wind lifted off the river and whipped their ruddy faces.

Mr. Yermolenko began speaking. Many of the people here, he said, experienced close calls. He knew something about that from his encounter on the river in May.

When the Russian patrol stopped him that day, the soldier cracked open the plastic tub, coming within three inches of finding the concealed guns. But he apparently didn’t want to get his hands dirty and never lifted the fishing net. Had the soldier found the guns underneath, Mr. Yermolenko says he would have been shot on the spot.

His eyes traced the faces of the people listening to him — his neighbors, other veteran fishermen, the yacht owners. He is often gruff, even grouchy, but on this morning, he was reflective. He thanked everyone by name and at the end added, “I also want to thank everyone on the Island who didn’t betray us.”

He hobbled inside. No refreshments were offered. Slowly, the people walked out of his gate, into the road and back to their ordinary lives.

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.

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