For families and detainees in Russian-occupied areas, a grim expectation
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Last month, a message was smuggled to friends by 10 Ukrainian detainees in Russian-occupied territory. The men, among hundreds of other civilian prisoners who have been missing for weeks since the Russian withdrawal from the city of Kherson, said they were alive but in desperate need of help.
“They asked us to contact their relatives and tell the media that they are alive,” said Andriy, a former detainee and friend of some detainees, who like others interviewed for this article, gave only his first name for security reasons. “They are being tortured and detained without any legal basis.”
The withdrawal of Russian forces from large swathes of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine last fall raised hopes among many Ukrainians that their detained relatives would be freed and the country’s forces would build build on this momentum and would quickly reclaim more territory in the region.
But the Russian retreat proved so orderly that even prisoners were evacuated, and Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south largely stalled as heavy fighting concentrated on the eastern front.
Yet for families living in the occupied areas, or who have loved ones detained there, a new Ukrainian counter-offensive could not come soon enough, even if it carries additional risks.
Some people interviewed at a border crossing near the town of Zaporizhzhia – the only entry point for civilians crossing from Russian-held southern Ukraine into Ukrainian-held territory – said they were fleeing heavy shelling but hoped for a quick victory for Ukraine. The families of detainees held by the Russians were both terrified for their safety and desperate to see them rescued.
Ukrainians who arrived at a registration center in mud-covered cars last month described an increasingly desperate situation in the occupied areas, with frequent shelling, loud explosions at night from long-range Ukrainian strikes and a life on a war footing with power outages and shortages of Medicine.
“It’s impossible to live there,” said Lyubov, 81, who was waiting at the registration center in Zaporizhzhia with her daughter to be transported to the capital, Kyiv. Her apartment in the city of Mariupol had been destroyed, she said, and there was little health care.
A family arrived from Nova Kakhovka, a town on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, north of the city of Kherson, which they say was half-destroyed by artillery fire from both sides. “He was flying over our heads,” said 60-year-old Oleh.
There is no doubt that the Ukrainian military would like to push deeper into Russian-held territory in the south and towards Crimea if it could, and pressure is mounting to begin such training.
Military analysts generally agree that while Ukraine stands in a defensive posture for now, a new offensive from the south to cut off Russia’s supply and communication routes to Crimea is its next target. strategically important.
“I have always said that Zaporizhzhia is the most strategic direction. It is the leadership of Zaporizhzhia that can turn the tide of the war,” said Colonel Roman Kostenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and former commander of a Ukrainian special operations force, Alpha.
An offensive south of Zaporizhzhia towards the Russian cities of Melitopol and Berdyansk would split Russian forces and undermine their hold on Crimea, he said. But he warned that he did not expect any progress until spring, and even then only if Ukraine received additional help from the West in modern tanks, armored fighting vehicles and guns, some of which are now promised.
General Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, said Ukrainian strikes on Melitopol, a logistics hub, and on the Kerch Strait bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia had already shown Russian vulnerabilities. in Crimea.
“If the two main lines of communication are already damaged or can be disrupted, Crimea is starting to look more and more like a trap,” Gen. Hodges said in a recent Twitter Spaces interview with the Mriya Reporta popular pro-Ukrainian open source forum.
But an offensive in the south will be even more difficult than counteroffensives this fall in the northeast and south, the two military analysts warned. And residents traveling outside the region said the number of Russian troops in southern Ukraine had increased significantly in recent weeks with the arrival of troops who withdrew from western Kherson, joining other coming from the Russian mainland. Russian forces have been building defensive positions further from the front lines in recent weeks, Ukrainian and US officials said.
For Ukrainian civilians, the exit journey has also been difficult, hampered by long delays and security checks at Russian checkpoints. A bridge near the crossing had been destroyed in the fighting, forcing local fire department volunteers to tow cars through deep mud along an alternate route.
It took two days for Lyudmila, 49, and a friend to escape from the occupied part of the Kherson region, where they had visited her parents, she said. Her parents wanted to leave but were not up to the difficult journey, she said.
The two women spent a night in the town of Melitopol, where they heard Ukrainian strikes landing nearby. “It was noisy; it was close,” she said.
Russian troops were digging new lines of fortification, setting up concrete barriers and laying mines, several civilians said, but there were also signs they were unsure of their situation.
“I feel like they don’t know what they’re doing,” Lyuba, 69, a retired businesswoman, said of the Russian soldiers. “Maybe because I rarely see them sober, it’s impossible to talk to them.”
A school where Russian soldiers were housed near her home in the Kherson region was hit by an artillery strike that killed dozens, she said. And when she scolded a Ukrainian acquaintance for befriending a group of Russian soldiers, he told her that the soldiers had said they wanted to surrender to the Ukrainian army when she reached the city.
The families of two of the inmates who smuggled their message spoke to The New York Times to plead for action to save their loved ones. The Russians likely took the detainees with them to use as human shields or as hostages to trade, they said.
“I can’t think or feel anything because it’s such a mess,” said Viktoriya Nesterenko, 53, whose son, Vitaliy Cherkashyn, is one of 10 detained.
The men were being held in the town of Novotroitske, in the Russian part of the Kherson region, she said. She worried about the Ukrainian artillery strikes, especially when she learned that there was a strike on the town where they are being held.
“I just hope they’re in some sort of basement cell.”
She called for the men to be included in a prisoner exchange, but complained that the Ukrainian government focused on freeing military prisoners of war and paid little attention to the plight of civilians.
“I don’t know what to do, but we must not be silent,” she said.
“I really hope they have to retreat,” said Anna Trubych, 24, whose boyfriend Vladyslav Andryushchenko, 27, is another of the 10 detained. Along with the message, she received a photo. “He’s changed a lot,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Oleksandr Chubko and Kateryna Lachina contributed reporting.
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