Russian soldiers are forcing Ukrainian civilians from their apartments in the occupied capital of the Kherson region and moving in themselves, a resident said Friday as the southern city became a growing focus of war in Ukraine.
His account of soldiers spreading throughout the city of Kherson suggested that Russia could be preparing for intense urban warfare in anticipation of Ukrainian advances.
Russia-installed authorities in Kherson continued to urge civilians to leave the city, which lies on the right, or western, bank of the Dnieper River and has been cut off from supplies and food by Ukrainian bombardment.
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the region’s Kremlin-appointed administration, reiterated calls for civilians to depart for the left bank of the river. Stremousov said Thursday that Russian forces might soon withdraw from Kherson city. On Friday, he said the statement was merely an attempt to encourage evacuations.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested the Russians were feigning a pullout from Kherson in order to lure in the Ukrainian army. Zelensky called attempts to convince civilians to move deeper into Russian-controlled territory “theater.”
A Kherson resident told the Associated Press that Russian soldiers were installing themselves in vacated apartments. Russian military personnel are reportedly going door to door, checking property deeds, and forcing tenants to leave immediately if they can’t confirm ownership of apartments, he said.
“They’re forcing city residents to evacuate, and then Russian soldiers move into freed-up apartments across all of Kherson,” the resident, who spoke on condition that only his first name — Konstantin — was used for security reasons. “It is obvious that they are preparing for fighting the Ukrainian army in the city.”
Hospitals and clinics were not serving patients in Kherson, where residents also reported problems with food supplies.
“There are almost no deliveries of food into the city, the residents are using their own stocks and are queuing to the few shops that are still open,” Konstantin said.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told the AP that as part of its counteroffensive to reclaim the Kherson region, the Ukrainian army cut off the right bank of the Dnieper from supplies of weapons and food by shelling main transportation routes and ruining bridges across the river.
“The Russians understand the danger of transport routes being blocked and have practically put up with the fact that they will have to retreat from the right bank of the Dnieper,” Zhdanov said. “But the Russian troops are not prepared to leave Kherson peacefully and are preparing for battles within the city. They’re deploying the mobilized reservists there and new tactical battalion groups.”
According to Zhdanov, the Ukrainian army has a significant advantage over the Russians in aviation and artillery on the right bank, which means that it could shell Kherson city and avoid a head-on clash.
“Kyiv is taking its time because the Russian resources in Kherson are evaporating, and they’re getting weaker by the day, which allows the Ukrainians to accumulate forces for the main strike,” Zhdanov said.
Russian forces seized Kherson city soon after invading Ukraine in late February. Russia illegally annexed the Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine in late September and subsequently declared martial law in the four provinces.
The Kremlin-installed regional administration in Kherson already has moved tens of thousands of civilians out of the city, citing the threat of increased shelling as Ukraine’s army pursues its counteroffensive. Authorities removed the Russian flag from the Kherson administration building on Thursday.
Ukraine’s southern military spokeswoman, Natalia Humeniuk, said the flag’s removal could be a ruse “and we should not hurry to rejoice.” She told Ukrainian television that some Russian military personnel were disguising themselves as civilians.
Neither side’s claims could be independently verified.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian officials reported shooting down drones launched by Russian forces: eight drones in the Nikopol area, which was also subjected to artillery shelling, and another drone over the western Lviv region.
The commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said that Russian forces had “tripled the intensity of hostilities on certain areas of the front” and were carrying out “up to 80 attacks every day.”
Zelensky‘s office said at least nine civilians were killed and 16 wounded by attacks in Ukraine between Thursday and Friday.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Friday that there was still a steady stream of volunteers wanting to join the Russian military, with 318,000 people already mobilized. Authorities previously said the goal was to mobilize some 300,000 reservists.
Putin said 49,000 were already in the army and performing combat missions, while the rest were still being trained. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that 87,000 were deployed to Ukraine. The discrepancy could not be immediately reconciled.
When Russia announced the mobilization drive in September, protests erupted in several regions and tens of thousands of Russians fled the country.
Putin also signed a law Friday permitting the military mobilization of those with expunged of outstanding convictions for certain serious crimes, including those who have recently served time for murder, robbery and drug trafficking.
Russia agreed Wednesday to rejoin a wartime agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey allowing Ukrainian grain to be shipped to world markets through the Black Sea. Moscow had suspended its participation in the grain deal over the weekend, citing an alleged drone attack against its Black Sea fleet in Crimea.
The Ukrainian armed forces said “the functioning of grain corridors continues” according to plan Friday.
As one condition for returning to the deal, Russia demanded the grain be sent to poorer countries, arguing that most of it was ending up in richer nations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday he had discussed the issue of prioritizing less developed countries for the grain shipments during a call with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Erdogan said he also discussed the possibility of sending the grain to nations facing famine for free during a recent call with Putin, and the two leaders planned to hold further talks on the topic at a Group of 20 meeting in Bali this month.
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.