KYIV: In a growing challenge to Russia’s grip on occupied areas of southeastern Ukraine, guerrilla forces loyal to Kyiv are killing pro-Moscow officials, blowing up bridges and trains, and helping the Ukrainian military by identifying key targets.
The spreading resistance has eroded Kremlin control of those areas and threatened its plans to hold referendums in various cities as a move toward annexation by Russia.
“Our goal is to make life unbearable for the Russian occupiers and use any means to derail their plans,” said Andriy, a 32-year-old coordinator of the guerrilla movement in the southern Kherson region.
A member of the Zhovta Strichka — or “Yellow Ribbon” — resistance group, Andriy spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of not being fully identified to avoid being tracked down by the Russians. The group takes its name from one of the two national colours of Ukraine, and its members use ribbons of that hue to mark potential targets for guerrilla attacks.
Ukrainian troops recently used the US -supplied multiple rocket launcher known as HIMARS to hit a strategic bridge on the Dnieper River in Kherson, severing the Russians’ main supply link. The city of 500,000 people, seized by Russian troops early in the war, has been flooded with leaflets from the resistance, threatening Moscow-backed officials.
Just before the bridge attack, leaflets appeared, saying, “If HIMARS can’t do it, a partisan will help.”
“We are giving the Ukrainian military precise coordinates for various targets, and the guerrillas’ assistance makes the new long-range weapons, particularly HIMARS, even more powerful,” Andriy told the AP. “We are invisible behind the Russian lines, and this is our strength.”
As Ukrainian forces step up attacks in the region and reclaim some areas west of the Dnieper River, the guerrilla activity also has increased.
They coordinate with the Ukrainian military’s Special Operations Forces, which helps them develop strategies and tactics. Those forces also select targets and set up a website with tips on how to organize resistance, prepare ambushes and elude arrest. A network of weapons caches and secret hideouts was established in occupied areas.
Bombs have been placed near administrative buildings, at officials’ homes and even on their routes to work.
An explosive placed on a tree went off as a vehicle carrying Kherson prison chief Yevgeny Sobolev passed by, although he survived the attack. A police vehicle was hit by a shrapnel bomb, seriously wounding two officers, one of whom later died. The deputy head of the 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 Kherson region’s Russia-backed temporary administration, offering a bounty of 1 million hryvnias (about $25,000). His assistant, Pavel Slobodchikov, was shot and killed in his vehicle, and another official, 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 units from Russia detect two or three caches with weapons for terrorist activities,” Saldo said on his messaging app channel. “The seizure of weapons helps reduce the threat of sabotage.”
Early in the occupation, thousands of residents staged peaceful protests. But the Russian military quickly disbanded them and arrested activists, radicalizing the resistance.
Wedding photographer-turned-activist Oleksandr Kharchikov, 41, of Skadovsk, said he was beaten and tortured after being arrested in a Russian security sweep.
“The Russians tortured me for a long time. They beat me with a baseball bat, they pinched my fingers with pliers and tortured me with electric shocks,” Kharchikov said in a telephone interview. “I suffered a concussion and a broken rib, but I didn’t give them any information, and that saved me.”
Kharchikov spent 155 days under Russian occupation until he escaped. “The repressions are intensifying. They are creating unbearable conditions for the Ukrainians, making it increasingly difficult to survive under Russian occupation,” he told the AP.