Ukrainian resistance is growing in the Russian-occupied territories

Ukrainian resistance is growing in the Russian-occupied territories

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – In a growing challenge to Russia’s control of occupied territories in south-eastern Ukraine, guerrilla forces loyal to Kyiv are killing pro-Moscow officials, blowing up bridges and trains, and aiding Ukraine’s military by identify important goals.

The spreading resistance has undermined the Kremlin’s control over these areas and threatened its plans to hold referendums in various cities as a step towards annexation by Russia.

“Our goal is to make life unbearable for the Russian occupiers and thwart their plans by any means necessary,” said Andriy, a 32-year-old coordinator of the guerrilla movement in the southern Kherson region.

A member of the resistance group Zhovta Strichka – or “Yellow Ribbon” – Andriy spoke to The Associated Press on condition not to be fully identified to avoid being tracked down by the Russians. The group takes its name from one of Ukraine’s two national colors, and its members use ribbons of this hue to mark potential targets for guerrilla attacks.

Ukrainian troops recently used a US-supplied multiple rocket launcher called HIMARS to hit a strategic bridge on the Dnieper River in Kherson, cutting the Russians’ main supply line. The city of 500,000, which was taken by Russian troops early in the war, was flooded with resistance leaflets threatening Moscow-backed officials.

Just before the attack on the bridge, leaflets appeared that read: “If HIMARS can’t do it, a partisan will help.”

“We give the Ukrainian military precise coordinates for various targets, and the support of the guerrillas makes the new long-range weapons, especially HIMARS, even more powerful,” Andriy told the AP. “We are invisible behind Russian lines and that is our strength.”

As Ukrainian forces step up attacks in the region and retake some areas west of the Dnieper River, guerrilla activity has also increased.

They coordinate with the special forces of the Ukrainian military, which helps them develop strategies and tactics. These forces also select targets and set up a website with tips on how to organize resistance, set up ambushes, and evade arrest. A network of arms caches and secret hiding places was set up in the occupied territories.

Bombs were placed near administrative buildings, on officials and even on their way to work.

An explosive device attached to a tree went off when a vehicle carrying Yevgeny Sobolev, the Kherson prison warden, drove past, although he survived the attack. A police vehicle was hit by a cluster bomb, seriously injuring two officers, one of whom later died. The deputy head of local administration in Nova Kakhovka died of wounds after being gunned down over the weekend.

Guerrillas have repeatedly tried to kill Vladimir Saldo, the head of the Russian-backed temporary administration of the Kherson region, and put a 1 million hryvnia (about US$25,000) bounty on his head. His assistant Pavel Slobodchikov was shot dead in his vehicle and another officer, Dmytry Savluchenko, was killed by a car bomb.

The attacks have prompted Moscow to send anti-guerrilla units to Kherson, Saldo said.

“Every day, special forces from Russia discover two or three caches of weapons used for terrorist activities,” Saldo said on his messaging app channel. “The confiscation of weapons helps reduce the risk of sabotage.”

At the beginning of the occupation, thousands of residents held peaceful protests. But the Russian military quickly disbanded them and arrested activists, radicalizing the resistance.

Wedding photographer and activist Oleksandr Kharchikov, 41, from Skadovsk, said he was beaten and tortured after being arrested during a Russian security raid.

“The Russians tortured me for a long time. They hit me with a baseball bat, pinched my fingers with pliers and tortured me with electric shocks,” Charchikov said in a telephone interview. “I had a concussion and a broken rib but I didn’t give them any information and that saved me.”

Charchikov spent 155 days under Russian occupation before escaping.

“The repression is increasing. They create unbearable conditions for Ukrainians and make it increasingly difficult to survive under Russian occupation,” he told the AP.

The Russians were offering 10,000 rubles ($165) to anyone who applied for Russian citizenship in a bid to increase their hold over the region, he said.

Moscow introduced the ruble, built Russian mobile networks and shut down Ukrainian television in the region. Huge screens with Russian TV programs were installed in the main squares of the cities.

The mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov, who also spent a long time in Russian captivity, told the AP that about 500 Ukrainian activists were arrested and many were tortured. Some disappeared for months after their arrest.

In May and June, guerrillas blew up two railway bridges in Melitopol and derailed two Russian military trains, Fedorov said.

“The resistance movement has three goals – to destroy Russian weapons and their means of supply, to discredit and intimidate the occupiers and their collaborators, and to inform Ukrainian special services about enemy positions,” he added.

Russia responded by stepping up patrols and conducting regular searches for people suspected of having guerrilla links. During such raids, they check phones and arrest those with Ukrainian symbols or photos of relatives in military uniforms.

“In a cleanup, the Russians cordon off the entire neighborhood, stopping traffic to and from her and methodically moving from apartment to apartment. If they find Ukrainian symbols or links to the Ukrainian military, they put all family members in a filtration camp,” Fedorov said.

“The best case scenario is that you tell people: ‘Get out of here if you’re against Russia,’ but it also happens that some people disappear,” he said.

Of Melitopol’s pre-war population of 150,000, more than 60,000 have left the country.

Pro-Moscow officials are preparing for a possible referendum on Melitopol and other occupied territories joining Russia, conducting security raids and handing out Russian passports, Fedorov said.

“We will defeat the Russian referendum. We will not allow Russian gun barrels to be voted on,” he said, adding that no more than 10% of the population is sympathetic to Moscow and half have fled.

Guerrillas have attached yellow ribbons to buildings set to vote, warning residents that they could be bombed during the election.

The resistance ranges from radical activists to teachers and pensioners who sing Ukrainian songs in parks and secretly wear yellow and blue ribbons.

“Russians expected to be greeted with flowers, but they faced the fact that most people consider themselves Ukrainians and are ready to resist in various forms – from intelligence gathering to burning and blowing up the Occupiers,” said Oleksii Aleksandrov, who owned a restaurant in the southern port of Mariupol.

In a recent gesture of defiance in Mariupol, a young man wrapped in a Ukrainian flag stood on a street next to the Russian-bombed theater. The photo circulated in the Ukrainian media, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed it in an address to the nation.

“It was very courageous and I want to thank him for what he did,” Zelensky said. “This man is one of many people who are waiting for Ukraine’s comeback and will under no circumstances accept the occupation.”

Although pro-Moscow sentiment is strong in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking industrial heartland, Donbass, a guerrilla movement has also emerged there.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said six Russian soldiers were wounded last month when their vehicle was blown up by guerrillas in the city of Sievierodonetsk shortly after it was seized. They have also targeted railroads and disrupted Russian shipments of ammunition and other supplies.

“The guerrilla acted quite successfully,” Haidai told the AP. “They didn’t just hand out leaflets. They also destroyed infrastructure facilities. It helps a lot in slowing down Russian attacks and advances.”

Observers say the guerrilla movement varies regionally and that it is in both sides’ interests to exaggerate its scope.

“The Russians are doing this to justify their repression in the occupied territories, while the Ukrainians are trying to demoralize Russian forces and tout their victories,” said Vadim Karasev, head of the Kyiv-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies. “It’s hard to believe the stories about Ukrainians feeding Russian soldiers poisoned cakes, but sometimes myths work better than facts.”

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Yuras Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine