Looting and Sabotage Marked Last Days of Russia’s Occupation of Kherson

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ian Lovett headlined “Looting, Sabotage Marked Last Days of Russia’s Occupation of Kherson”:

KHERSON, Ukraine—Earlier this month, Russian soldiers ripped down power lines, knocked down cellphone towers and looted homes and businesses throughout Kherson, the Ukrainian city they had occupied since the early days of the war.

On Nov. 10, the Russian forces were gone.

Knocking out the electricity—along with the heat, water and cell reception—was among the last steps in the Russians’ slow, secret withdrawal from west of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine.

“They were ripping down the power lines,” said Ludmila Chechekova, a local resident who saw a soldier driving a tractor down a street pulling the wires down in her neighborhood several days before the Russian withdrawal.

After Ukrainian troops routed the Russians in the country’s northeast in September—when whole battalions were forced to flee suddenly, leaving behind injured troops, sensitive documents and millions of dollars of equipment—Moscow took pains to avoid a similar mess here.

Beginning in late October, the Kremlin slowly drew down the number of troops in the Kherson region and began moving out heavy equipment. To cover the retreat, they pressed civilians to leave the city as well, saying that it would be dangerous to stay as Ukrainian troops fought to retake the city.

Even as troops filled trucks with all the looted goods they could find and drove them away, Russian officials told residents they were preparing to fight for the city.

Then, they knocked out communications and mined the roads. By Nov. 10, they had left.

“It was an organized retreat,” said one Ukrainian soldier in the 49th individual rifle battalion who fought in the region in the last three weeks before the withdrawal. As the unit reclaimed one village after another last week in the Bashtanka area, north of Kherson, they found only a handful of Russian soldiers to take captive. Each village was reclaimed without firing a shot. The Russians left weapons behind in one position, a stark contrast to the huge amount of munitions they abandoned during their September retreat from Kharkiv, in the northeast.

“They’d packed up everything,” the soldier said, adding that the mines on the roads slowed their efforts to chase down the retreating Russians. “They placed stones around the mines so we couldn’t remove them with vehicles. We had to extract them by hand.”

In Kherson, the retreat began with a buildup of troops. In mid-October, thousands of soldiers who had been called up as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fall mobilization began arriving in the city. Residents said they were easy to pick out: They were so poorly equipped that they were buying boots and other equipment for themselves in local stores, so they wouldn’t have to fight in sneakers. They would show up at the regional hospital, asking doctors to sign paperwork saying they weren’t healthy enough to fight, according to Viktor Shuleshko, a doctor there.

On Oct. 18, the Russian-installed administration here said it was relocating to the east of the river, claiming that Ukraine would soon start pummeling the city with artillery and that it was no longer safe to remain. Civilians were bombarded with messages urging them to follow: “Emergency evacuation! Ukrainian forces will shell the residential districts!” Though, in fact, little artillery was falling inside the city, tens of thousands, many of them elderly, lined up to board ferries across the river.

Over the next few days, banks and pension offices were closed. Hundreds of prisoners were released from Kherson’s jails. Those who weren’t released were brought across the river, and police stations where they had been held were abandoned by the end of October. Markets began to run out of basic supplies such as bread and milk. Residents wanted to wait for Ukrainian forces to arrive but worried they might have to endure a siege.

“There was panic,” said Serhii Gorbanyov, 28. “People ran to the markets to buy supplies. No one knew how long it would take or what would happen.”

By that time, Ukrainian forces had been hitting Moscow’s supply lines for months. They had disabled bridges, destroyed ammunition dumps and logistics centers, rendering troops west of the river isolated. Holding that territory was becoming untenable, according to military analysts.

“They’re trading bodies for time,” Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said at the time of the Kremlin’s plan to flood the southern front with recently mobilized soldiers.

But as residents lined up to leave Kherson, troops also began disappearing from the city’s streets. The older ones, who appeared to be officers, were the first to leave, residents said. By early November, younger troops—including some who had been mobilized recently—were less present. Many left with anything they could carry.

“The last two weeks, they were focused on taking as much as they possibly could,” said Oksana Bugayova, 38, a nurse in a hospital in the central part of the city. Through early November, she said, she watched as Russian troops removed everything from an administrative building next door to the hospital. “They packed tables, chairs, sofas, fans. They took a whole truck full of documents.”

Though the looting was nothing new—since the first days of the occupation, residents said, Russians had moved into empty houses, broken into garages, and taken anything of value—it reached new levels in November.

Troops took art from museums. They dug up the bones of 18th-century Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin and hauled them east across the river.

Electronics stores, garages and storage lockers were emptied of anything valuable.

Yaroslav Yanushevych, the governor of the Kherson region, said the Russians cut more than a mile of power lines before leaving the west side of the river. They also took all of the fire trucks from Kherson, leaving the city without equipment to respond in case of a fire in a high rise.

“I saw them taking a column of tractors, ambulances, utility trucks, cranes” toward a pontoon bridge during the first week of November, said Andriy Curdibanov, a local.

Still, until last week, residents said they weren’t sure if the Russians would leave. Even as the Russian flag disappeared from the regional administration building and ferries stopped running across the river, Russian officials continued to say they would fight to hold the city. Even some military analysts said it didn’t look like the Kremlin was retreating.

Viktoria Kozhemyak, 53, said that Dnipro market, where she works selling food and other goods, was suddenly all but devoid of soldiers by last Monday.

“I thought, either Ukraine will enter the city or something worse will happen,” Ms. Kozhemyak said.

On Nov. 9, Mr. Gorbanyov said, he saw soldiers steal two cars, telling the drivers to get out and then stepping in and speeding away. The Russians had already broken into and robbed his garage, and he went to hide his van, so they didn’t try to take it.

The next morning, almost every soldier was gone. Roadblocks that had been manned since March were abandoned. Locals wandered through administrative buildings that were now empty, finding no Russians inside.

Anya and Ruslan Babich said they saw guards around midday on Nov. 10 at the roadblock near the Antonivsky Bridge, the city’s main bridge across the river. That night, from their house nearby, they heard a series of explosions. The largest, around 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, shook their house.

“When we heard it, we realized the Russians had probably blown the bridge,” Ms. Babich said. “In the morning, we saw it with our own eyes.”

A large slab of the bridge was completely gone. The Russians had also sunk boats in the harbor, hoping to make it more difficult for Ukrainian forces to pursue them across the river.

Later that day, Karina Vanikovna was scrolling through channels on her radio. For months, all the channels had been in Russian, but at 1 p.m. she heard Ukrainian language crackling faintly.

“I realized it was happening,” she said. She ran to tell her neighbors, who gathered in the courtyard of their apartment complex with champagne and Ukrainian flags they had hidden in their apartments.

Ukrainian troops entered the city later that day.

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