The Southern Front

Maxim Edwards

Last night, the Russian army surrounded Kherson in southern Ukraine, near the mouth of the Dnieper, setting up checkpoints on roads leading into and out of the city. Today, they entered it. Footage proliferating online shows a school destroyed by shelling, damage to residential buildings and soldiers looting local shops.

The city of 290,000 people used to be on the way to Crimea. Since Putin annexed the peninsula in 2014, however, Kherson has been the final stop before a militarised border. Ukrainian officials from Crimea relocated there. The ‘border’, they assured me a few years ago, was temporary, one day to be redrawn. Now the Russian military is redrawing it daily.

After the annexation, Crimean Tatars fled in their hundreds, heading to the border towns where there were already established Tatar communities from earlier displacements. Near Henichesk, another ‘border’ town two hundred kilometres from Kherson, I met several, sleeping near a village mosque. I’m now in Germany, collecting and verifying video footage for Bellingcat. The courtyard of the mosque appears in a clip from 24 February. The corpse of a 17-year-old boy, wrapped in a carpet, is in the back of a minivan. A man blames Satan and the Russians for his death.

In another clip, the central market in Kherson has been razed to the ground. A resident told me in a Twitter message that he thinks it’s arson, though he can’t be sure. ‘Everybody stays at home. They can write what they want’, he said.

We have footage of at least three incidents of civilian cars being shot up along the steppe roads of Ukraine’s far south. An ambulance ablaze, its driver dead, as medics resuscitate a passenger they have carried to a black earth field. A pensioner lies dead near his bicycle in Nova Kakhovka. At night, there is looting. We archive all the videos we receive, geolocate and verify. When I see streets and buildings I recognise, I can’t help remembering the people I interviewed there. Some must have left. Others are uncontactable.

Vitaly Kim, the mayor of Mykolaiv, says in daily recordings that he expects a pitched battle. At the time of writing, Ukrainian forces have managed to hold the port city north-west of Kherson. A local oligarch, Kim says, has offered $1000 for every Russian military vehicle destroyed.

If Putin’s forces take Kherson and Mykolaiv, Odesa hangs in the balance. To the east, Russian soldiers are advancing along the coast of the Sea of Azov. If Mariupol falls – a city of half a million people – Russia will have established a land bridge to Crimea through the Donbas.

In 2014 Ukraine blocked the North Crimean Canal, which carries water from the Dnieper to the peninsula. On 26 February, Russia’s military media channel, TV Zvezda, broadcast the explosion of a concrete dam on the canal.

The area of southern Ukraine now under occupation may now be one of the largest under contiguous Russian control. In any peace agreement, however euphemistic, Moscow will seek to consolidate these gains – not least because of their practical significance for ruling Crimea.

But as the front moves forward, Russia cannot hope to leave large occupation armies in the cities and towns of southern Ukraine. The entire invasion was predicated on being welcomed as liberators; the folly of a personalist regime high on its own propaganda. On 26 February, an article appeared on Russian state media celebrating the victorious ‘gathering of the Russian lands’. Published prematurely, in anticipation of a rapid conquest, it was quickly deleted. Putin was not expecting to meet the resistance he has.

Footage from Berdyansk, the final stop along the coast before Mariupol, shows a crowd of flag-waving civilians confronting Russian soldiers. The camera focuses on the driver of a military jeep, wearing a balaclava. He turns his head aside. ‘Show your face!’ a voice screams off camera. ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’


  • 2 March 2022 at 8:27am
    Camus says:
    Do you have any reliable information about the support for Putin in the LNR and the DNR? I believe that the people get most of their food from Russia and pensions are paid at Russian rates but I don't think that there are clear divisions between Russian and Ukrainian speakers.

    • 2 March 2022 at 10:31am
      Rory Allen says: @ Camus
      Somehow I don't think people are conducting opinion polls there at the moment. And any information predating the Russian invasion is unreliable now: people may have changed their minds (some even in the pro-Russian direction possibly).

    • 2 March 2022 at 3:44pm
      Camus says: @ Rory Allen
      True enough, but the conflict has been going on for seven years and I would think that objective estimates of the support for each side could be available.

    • 3 March 2022 at 5:33pm
      nlowhim says: @ Camus
      I too have been looking for more information on the conflict in Donbass. What did the people think? Is the conflict only artillery shelling. Here in the states the MSM claimed anything the Russians mentioned was false flag, and yet attacks were happening (similar to their hand waving things like the Azov battalion). A HRW report makes it seem like it’s been pretty constant to include water supplies hit (on the Russian side). Crimea seems calm though I’ve heard that Tartar speakers have fled the Russian held portions (why? Not sure so I’m taking this as unconfirmed for now). Would definitely want to hear more detailed information on this.

      Here’s the HRW report (for 2020):

      “ Flare-ups in hostilities, notably in March and May, led to civilian casualties. According to data by the United Nations human rights monitoring mission, in the first seven months of 2020, 18 civilians were killed and 89 injured by shelling, small arms weapons fire, mine-related incidents and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) strikes. Schools and educational facilities continued to be damaged by shelling, small arms and light weapons fire. Most of incidents occurred in the nongovernment-controlled areas.”

      That last line is telling. Doesn’t excuse a damn thing Putin has done with and since the invasion but it seems relevant (and not false flagish).

      Finally another set of reports that I haven’t gone through:

    • 4 March 2022 at 2:46pm
      Jake Bharier says: @ nlowhim
      One possible response to your question about why Tatar speakers may be fleeing might be found a little later in the HRW report, under the heading "Crimea": "Russian authorities continued persecuting Crimean Tatars activists in occupied Crimea by bringing unfounded terrorism charges against them."

    • 16 March 2022 at 4:19pm
      fbkun says: @ Rory Allen
      From what I hear from the people I know in Donetsk, there's no way they would accept a return to Ukraine --- not out of love for Putin or because they want to be Russian citizens, but because they can't forget that the army of the country that claims they belong to it (and its neo-nazi paramilitary associate, the Azov batalion) has been shelling them for the last 8 years and been responsible for the killing of the majority of the civilian victims there (OSCE figures). Not to mention making them apatrides (situation Putin hasn't lost time to exploit, distributing Russian passports) and refusing to pay the pensions of the retired people, among other things. And of course not to mention the constant flow of hateful epithets they get from Ukrainian TV channels --- sometimes with a vocabulary ("cockroaches" and the like) that wouldn't have been out of place on Radio Mille Collines. So, even if they don't like Putin and even less the corrupt separatist leaders, they certainly can't imagine a comeback to the situation before 2014.

  • 2 March 2022 at 5:45pm
    BlakMark says:
    Polls of public opinion re identity, language and ethnicity were carried out in Ukraine, not the occupied parts specifically, in 2012, 2014 and 2017. See free/OpenAccess material at
    The introductory essay identifies “bottom-up deRussification”. Apologies that that doesn’t directly answer the question raised. I hope it is of interest nonetheless.

    • 2 March 2022 at 8:47pm
      Camus says: @ BlakMark
      Many thanks!

    • 3 March 2022 at 12:52pm
      Reader says: @ BlakMark
      Thank you. The link to the specific paper you mention is
      However, only the 2012 survey covered the whole of Ukraine, as they could not get access to what are described as "both Crimea and parts of the Donbas that had been seized by combined Russian and separatist troops ..." in the two later surveys. So we still do not know how opinions have changed in those areas, if at all, since 2012.

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