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Recent attacks on pro-Russian officials in southern Ukraine indicate signs of a growing resistance movement

Recent attacks on pro-Russian officials in southern Ukraine indicate signs of a growing resistance movement

The Kremlin “is facing increased partisan activity in southern Ukraine,” Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, said during a conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Ukraine also launched limited counterattacks near Kherson, further straining Russian forces.

The area is important for Russian control of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast and controls access to Crimea. It is unclear how many Russian troops are in or near Kherson, but the occupation against the hostile local population requires much more soldiers than the peaceful occupation of the territory.

Russia’s leaders prioritized the military campaign over any form of government. “It’s clearly not something they can invest in right now,” said one US official.

Three assassination attempts

The first attack occurred in Kherson on June 16, when an explosion smashed the windows of a white Audi Q7 SUV. The car was badly damaged, but the target survived the attack.

The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Eugene Sobolev, head of the pro-Russian prison service in occupied Kherson, who was hospitalized after the attack.

Less than a week later, a second pro-Russian official was targeted in Kherson. This time the attack succeeded. RIA Novosti reported that Dmitry Savluchenko, a pro-Russian official in charge of the Youth and Sports Administration of the Kherson region, was killed on June 24. Serhiy Khelan, an adviser to the head of Ukraine’s civil military administration in Kherson, called Savluchenko a “traitor” and said he had been blown up in his car. “Our supporters have achieved another victory,” Khelan declared.

The official Russian news agency TASS reported that the car of a third pro-Russian official was set on fire, Tuesday, in Kherson, although the official was not hurt. It is not clear who carried out the attacks.
Officials said that there did not appear to be a central command directing an organized resistance, but that the attacks increased in frequency, particularly in the Kherson region, which Russia occupied in March at the beginning of its invasion.

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A source familiar with Western intelligence was more skeptical about whether the resistance could evolve from partisan attacks to a more organized campaign capable of managing the attacks and providing weapons and instructions.

The source familiar with Western intelligence confirmed that the resistance so far has not affected Russia’s control of Kherson.

But in the long run, the United States estimates that Russia will eventually face an insurgency from the local Ukrainian population.

“I think Russia will face significant challenges in trying to establish any kind of stable administration for these regions, because the potential collaborators — the most prominent — will be assassinated and others will live in fear,” Michael Kaufman said. D., director of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analytics, a Washington-based think tank.

Making Russian rule difficult

On Tuesday, the designated authorities of Russia in the Kherson region arrested the elected mayor of the Ukrainian city, Ihor Kulykayev, hours before they announced plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia. The pro-Russian military-civilian administration accused Kulekhaev of encouraging people to “believe in the return of neo-Nazism.”

Kulekhayev’s adviser said Russian authorities also confiscated hard drives from computers, ransacked safes and searched for documents. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian military said “raiders” had stormed Kherson State University and kidnapped the university’s rector.

The Russian forces gradually adopted the ruble as the local currency and issued Russian passports.

In Mariupol, the pro-Russian authorities celebrated the so-called “liberation” of the city in May. The Russian-allied Donetsk People’s Republic changed road signs from Ukrainian to Russian and installed a statue of an elderly woman holding the Soviet flag. Meanwhile, the iconic Mariupol sign painted in Ukrainian colors has been repainted in Russian colours.

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Despite Russia’s efforts to eliminate Ukrainian history, ethnicity, and nationalism from Kherson and other occupied territories, the Ukrainian population is showing a willingness to resist.

A view of a destroyed building after a Russian missile hit an industrial area in Kharkiv, Ukraine on June 29, 2022.

“The occupiers and their local collaborators are making more and more loud statements [the] A Ukrainian official said last week that the Kherson region is joining Russia, but every day more and more Ukrainian flags and inscriptions appear in the city.

Attempts to forcibly erase Ukrainian culture and impose Russian hegemony have had the opposite effect in some cases, according to a senior NATO official.

“There have been reports of assassination attempts against some of the candidates who were appointed to be governors and mayors. [and] The North Atlantic Treaty Organization official said: “The blunderer is a traitor collaborating with a hostile power, named after a Norwegian World War II official who was collaborating with the Nazis.” This would almost certainly deter Russian sympathizers or Russians or whatever. I’m going there to take these jobs from eating them in the first place.”

As an occupying power in Kherson — in particular, one that appears bent on maintaining control — Russia has to provide basic services in the areas it administers, such as clean water and garbage collection. But one US official said the United States appreciates that acts of resistance make it difficult to provide governance and basic services.

The official said the United States knew there was a “serious resistance network” inside Ukraine that would be able to take over if and when the military failed. Prior to the invasion, the United States expected the emergence of insurgency, along with guerrilla warfare, soon after heavy fighting in which Russia was victorious. But the war has now gone on for months, with many analysts predicting a much longer conflict.

Disputed and reclaimed villages between Mykolaiv and Kherson Zelenyi-Hai region of Ukraine, May 15, 2022.

The official said a senior US official had warned his Russian counterpart before the conflict that they would face an insurgency if they invaded Ukraine and tried to occupy territory. But the warning fell on deaf ears and the invasion continued, spurred in part by arrogance and poor intelligence.

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Russia believed that its forces would be welcomed with open arms and would quickly crush any resistance, misconceptions that quickly collapsed but did little to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus.

Kaufman says it is unclear what kind of governance framework Russia will attempt to create to exercise control, but there is no doubt that it intends to hold the territories. After facing prolonged bloody insurgencies in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Kremlin knew it was expecting another potential insurgency in Ukraine.

“They saw it coming,” Kaufman said. “That’s why they set up purification camps and shipped a lot of the population out of the occupied territories.”

CNN’s Tim Lister, Barbara Starr, and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.