Key Ukrainian city’s rapid fall leaves unanswered questions

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KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — When about 100 Russian troops rolled into Kherson’s Lilac Park on the morning of March 1, Oleh Shornik was one of about 20 lightly armed Ukrainian volunteers who didn’t stand a chance against them.

The Ukrainian army was nowhere to be seen, and Russian troops in armored vehicles had easily penetrated the Shumensky neighborhood, opening fire and sending shrapnel flying everywhere, witnesses said. Civilians walking to work were hit in the brief, fierce battle. The volunteers, hiding among the trees in the park, were cut down so quickly that they were not even able to throw the prepared Molotov cocktails.

“They didn’t have time to do anything,” Anatolii Hudzenko, who was at his home next to the park during the attack, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Seemingly left to their own devices, the civilian volunteers fell quickly. A day later, Kherson did too.

Thousands of Russian troops, advancing from the Crimean peninsula on February 24, captured the city on the Dnieper River so quickly that many residents said they felt abandoned by the Ukrainian army and its rapid withdrawal, leaving the city had no adequate defense.

But was the doomed grandstand in Lilac Park a futile, early act of defiance against what became a bloody Russian occupation of Kherson? Was it due to the Ukrainian army’s hasty withdrawal so that it could regroup to fight another day – and indeed recaptured the city later in November? Or was it the result of betrayal by high-ranking Ukrainian security officials who collaborated with Moscow?

It’s possible it was a combination of all of those things.

Now that Russia has withdrawn from Kherson following Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the south, residents want to know why Moscow’s troops were able to overrun the city so easily.

“There are more questions than answers to this story,” said Svetlana Shornik, who first stood at her ex-husband’s grave because the Russians had blocked access to the cemetery while occupying the city.

In addition to the volunteers killed in the park, about five others were killed at a nearby roundabout that day.

Families of the dead say they have been trying unsuccessfully for months to get information from the military and government so they can put an end to the deaths of their loved ones.

“I know very little,” said Nadiia Khandusenko, sharing the few facts she knows about the death of her husband, Serhii, who was also killed in Lilac Park.

Wiping away tears, Shornik told the AP she believes her ex-husband probably suffered in his last minutes because an autopsy revealed the 53-year-old retired police officer had been shot in the lung. The bodies lay on the park’s blood-stained grounds for three days because the Russians would not allow them to be buried, residents said.

“They’re heroes,” Shornik said. “They practically defended (the city) with their bare hands,” she said.

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The Territorial Defense Force of Ukraine started operations just before the Russian invasion. A volunteer militia commanded by the Department of Defense, which consisted of civilians, part-time reservists, and former troops to fight alongside the regular army.

Despite their lack of training and equipment, the volunteers played a vital role in the war and were a major reason why Kiev was not occupied, said Mykhailo Samus, founder of New Geopolitics Research Network, a Ukrainian think tank.

“When a (Russian) sabotage group enters a city, they expect to see civilians, but they found a lot of people with Kalashnikovs and it was a disaster for the Russians,” Samus said.

Civilian volunteers were unable to hold back Russian forces from Kherson, a port city with a pre-war population of 280,000 and home to a shipbuilding industry.

Kherson is located just north of Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. When Ukraine controlled the city, it was able to cut off fresh water to the peninsula, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of the need to restore water supplies as a reason for invading. .

The Kherson region is flat and swampy and has few forests or other natural barriers to hold back the tanks and troops from nearby Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and air bases.

In addition, Ukrainian officials, such as Kherson mayor Ihor Kolykhaev, told the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper in May that failure to destroy key bridges leading to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions was a mistake that helped the Russians, though he stressed that he had no was military.

Ukraine’s outnumbered army, meanwhile, had withdrawn from Kherson for the southern city of Mykolaiv, said Major Oleksandr Fedyunin, a military spokesman.

That withdrawal “ensured the survivability of troops and did not allow the enemy to gain air superiority in fire,” said Bohdan Senyk, chief army spokesman.

The rapid capture of Kherson has raised questions about whether Ukrainian collaborators aided the Russian invasion.

“Russia allowed its agents to infiltrate Ukrainian security forces, and the cleanup through Kiev was slow and inefficient,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine forum at London-based think tank Chatham House. “The price of that betrayal was great human loss.”

On April 1, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed two senior officials of the Ukrainian SBU for internal security, including the head of the Kherson regional branch, stripping them of their rank as general for violating their military oath of allegiance. He called them “anti-heroes” and said they had “difficulty determining where their homeland is.”

He added: “I don’t have time now to deal with all the traitors, but they will all be punished.”

In addition, an aide to one of those SBU officials was arrested and is being prosecuted for allegedly handing over maps of minefields and helping coordinate Russian airstrikes that aided Moscow’s armed forces, said Oleksandr Samoilenko, head of the Kherson regional legislature .

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The Russian takeover of Kherson – the only regional capital to fall in the war – ushered in a harsh eight-month occupation that saw stiff resistance from the remaining civilians, including attacks on Moscow-installed officials, planted bombs, and other threats. Moscow introduced the ruble, set up Russian mobile phone networks and shut down Ukrainian TV in the area. Street protests were banned.

As in other Ukrainian territories seized by Russia, officials who refused to cooperate were kidnapped, including Kherson mayor Kolykhaev. Residents claim they were locked up, beaten, shocked, interrogated and threatened with death at at least five locations in the city and four others in the wider region.

The region was one of four regions illegally annexed by Moscow in September, though troops were forced to withdraw weeks later as the Ukrainians stepped up their attacks with US-supplied missiles and cut Russian supply lines. The retreating troops left behind mines and booby traps, closed shops and restaurants and a traumatized population.

In Lilac Park, there is a small memorial to the volunteers who died there. Wreaths are attached to a few trees, with some yellow roses and a plaque with a cross and a small Ukrainian flag at the top.

It reads: “On March 1, 2022, Territorial Defense fighters were taken to heaven.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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