Ukraine’s Secret Plan to Save a City Trapped in Purgatory

It was just after 1 p.m. when the first of three artillery shells shrieked past Maryna Korifadze’s bomb shelter in Kherson, landing nearby with a bone-rattling crump.

Her regular group of neighbors, some with children in tow, shuffled down the basement stairs and into the bunker. They passed around chocolate, coffee and tea. The younger crowd played table tennis in the next room.

“Sometimes it’s between 20 and 30 people a night here,” Ms. Korifadze said.

More than 20 months since Russia invaded, the war in Ukraine has been a test of endurance for the country’s civilians as they endure relentless Russian bombardments and missile strikes.

But the southern city of Kherson, captured by Russian forces early in the war and liberated by Ukrainian troops a year ago, holds a special place among Ukraine’s cities: It resides in a purgatory between liberation and occupation — free of Russian troops but in range of much of Moscow’s arsenal.

Kherson’s residents have endured week after week of random violence since Russian troops fled, hoping for deliverance but receiving little as the city and its environs remain a bloody flashpoint.

But there is some hope. A series of secretive assaults across the Dnipro River — which serves as Kherson’s southern and eastern boundary — helped Ukrainian forces secure a sliver of land on the Russian-held bank in recent weeks.

What comes next is unclear, but Kherson’s embattled residents believe that, if successful, the attacks could push Russian formations and artillery farther away from their city.

Ms. Korifadze, buoyed by the news, recently called one of her colleagues who lives on the Russian-occupied side of the river and assured her: “You will be liberated.”

That may or may not come true. For now, the Russian strikes in and around Kherson continue unabated.

Russia’s use of glide bombs — guided airdropped munitions capable of flying long distances — has increased by more than 2,000 percent in recent months, Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesman for the Kherson region’s military administration, said last week. Six weeks ago, there were one or two of these bombs a day across the region, he added, and now there are somewhere around 30 to 40.

Though his statistics could not be independently verified, Kherson’s residents have described a distinct change in the types and frequency of Russian ordnance being lobbed, dropped and fired at their city and surrounding towns. In recent days, Iskander ballistic missiles have also landed in Kherson, a violent breach of the normal rhythm of artillery.

Ms. Korifadze described the shock wave delivered by a missile that impacted late last month, pushing her car forward like an invisible hand as she drove to drop off food for her son, a police officer.

Standing next to the crater left by a glide bomb, Mykhailo Chornomorets narrated the shredding sound of the hurtling explosive as it traveled through the air before it exploded near his home.

Anna Hordiienko, who runs a small hardware store near one of Kherson’s more shelled neighborhoods, mouthed the different acoustics of booms and bangs that she has heard. She now feels as if she is an expert in analyzing them.

Kherson is “a military training ground for them,” Ms. Hordiienko said. “They’re just shooting everything they can at us.”

Behind the seemingly unending supply of Russian ordnance is the stream of civilian casualties, the byproduct of the port city clinging to some form of normalcy only miles from Russian artillery positions. Ukrainian troops, as often occurs in frontline cities, live among the population, meaning noncombatants are also at risk. Russian shelling is haphazard and inaccurate, although Russia also has routinely targeted civilians.

Roughly 20 percent of Kherson’s population remains in the city, scattered across various neighborhoods.

Weeks ago, Ukrainian troops posited that Russia’s shelling of Kherson had declined since last winter, when the bombardment was at its worst and electricity and heat were scarce. Over the summer, Ukrainian and Russian armies battled farther east as part of Kyiv’s counteroffensive.

Those operations gave Kherson residents some respite, as did the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in June, which flooded both banks of the Dnipro and pushed Russian artillery positions further inland, away from the city.

But with Ukraine’s main offensive stalled and Russian forces attacking in the east, Moscow has shifted its attention back to Kherson and the Dnipro. Ukrainian forces have slowly gained a foothold on the Russian-held bank of the river through a series of amphibious landings that remain shrouded in secrecy. The increase in air attacks and shelling has almost certainly been focused at disrupting those assaults, Ukrainian officials and soldiers said.

“Some say they’re there, others say they’re not,” Ms. Hordiienko said about the river landings. “Only God knows.”

In previous months, the cross-river operations were more limited, with Ukrainian troops attacking for only a day or two before withdrawing. They were often supported by forces on the Ukrainian-held western bank: snipers and grenade launchers firing on Russian positions.

Now, Ukrainian soldiers involved in the operations describe a frantic and bloody battle where small craft move across the Dnipro River at night to avoid Russian drones before depositing infantry on the muddy eastern bank. Ukrainian units have described running out of ammunition and food, suffering from hypothermia and having little cover to protect themselves from Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.

Wounded soldiers sometimes have to wait for days on the small strip of land held by Ukraine before they can be picked up and ferried across the river to emergency care.

But what was once seen as a Ukrainian diversion to keep Russian troops occupied along the river appears to have vexed Russian forces to the point where Moscow switched out one of its key commanders in the area, according to Russian state media.

“The sooner the Ukrainian troops push the Russians away from the river, the sooner we’ll be left without artillery strikes,” said Vasyl Pererva, a Ukrainian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who stayed in Kherson when Russian soldiers occupied the city last year. The Russian occupation of the city reminded him of the Soviet army’s misguided invasion of Afghanistan, he said.

“All these years later, I think, ‘What the hell was I doing there,’” he recalled. “I was an invader.”

Once home to around 280,000 people, Kherson now has a population of about 60,000, and that number is expected to decline as winter sets in, especially if Russia begins to bomb Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, as it did last winter. Last Tuesday, a city resident named Mykola, 62, was boarding one of the regular evacuation trains from Kherson after a Russian shell riddled his home with shrapnel days before.

“Most of the neighbors have moved out,” he said. He declined to provide his surname.

Crime has dropped with the population, said Andrii Kovannyi, a police spokesman in Kherson, but petty theft and domestic disturbances remain a nuisance for officers, who juggle Russian attacks with mundane police work.

The increase in Russian strikes has also spurred the mandatory evacuation of children from the towns and villages outside of Kherson where Ukrainian forces are launching their assaults. Mr. Tolokonnikov, the official from the military administration, said more than 260 children and their families had left since late October. He expects some to stay.

In Kherson city, some playgrounds are ringed with defensive barricades in case a rocket, shell or bomb lands nearby. Most children in the city learn online. The lack of in-person classrooms has degraded Ukrainian youth’s education level since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Two nights after the artillery shells missed Ms. Korifadze’s bomb shelter, her 9-year-old granddaughter Anya and Anya’s mother were settling in for another night of air-raid alarms and Russian shelling. Older men from the neighborhood sat outside, pining for the days they could fish on the Dnipro.

Anya’s mother asked her daughter if she thought the night would pass quietly, without the varying levels of violence and destruction that were slowly defining her childhood.

Anya responded quickly: “It’s never quiet.”

Emile Ducke contributed reporting from Kherson, and Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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