Stealthy Kherson resistance fighters undermined Russian occupying forces

Ihor stands on rubble in a parking garage in the city of Kherson that he says was hit by Ukrainian artillery after he and other resistance fighters provided the location of Russian military vehicles.  (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)
Ihor stands on rubble in a parking garage in the city of Kherson that he says was hit by Ukrainian artillery after he and other resistance fighters provided the location of Russian military vehicles. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

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KHERSON, Ukraine – Ihor didn’t even know the first name of the person who contacted him. The man said he was a member of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces and wanted to know if Ihor was interested in helping fight the Russians who are occupying his city of Kherson.

“Sign me up,” Ihor replied.

For months, the two maintained coded communications over the Telegram messaging app. Sometimes Ihor would be asked to help identify locations from which the Russians were firing artillery. At other times, the man, who asked to be known as Smoke, sent the site of Russian troops, armored vehicles and ammunition stocks.

Then in August, Ihor was given a more dangerous task by Mwg. There was a cache of weapons hidden somewhere in Kherson, and Ihor needed to bury them in a different location and wait for the signal. Eventually, Smoke told him, Ihor might be called upon to take one of the weapons and help Ukrainian soldiers if the battle for Kherson turned to street fighting and small sabotage groups would be needed.

“Around the city, there were many people with weapons who were waiting for the right time to use them,” Ihor said. He declined to give his surname out of concern for his safety, and Smoke asked to be identified only by his call sign because of his work with special forces.

During more than eight months of Russian occupation, an underground resistance movement formed in Kherson, the military of the lone regional capital Vladimir Putin was able to hold since the beginning of his invasion last February.

Stories of brave Ukrainian citizens resisting the invading troops have been widespread throughout the war. But Kherson, which has been occupied since early March, was a unique hub for resistance activity where many civilians worked in close collaboration with handlers from the Ukrainian security services.

Help from inside occupied territories – at times beyond the reach of Ukraine’s missiles and artillery – has been key to Kyiv repelling some of its most brazen attacks, including at an airport in Crimea , illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.

In Kherson and in the occupied city of Melitopol, about 140 miles to the east, there have been mysterious explosions during the war which have killed or injured Russian-appointed authorities. Those explosions are believed to be the work of resistance fighters, also known as partisans, or Ukrainian special forces working behind enemy lines. Sometimes, bombs exploded when occupying officers’ cars or in their homes.

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Witnesses speak of detention, torture, disappearances in occupied Kherson

People often did not know who among their neighbors or colleagues were also resistance fighters. In interviews, two members of the resistance claimed that they managed to kill a few drunken Russians walking alone in the streets by stabbing them. Those claims could not be verified. But mostly the partisans were given non-violent assignments, resistance fighters and military officials said, such as hiding weapons or explosives in a certain location, identifying collaborators, or reporting on the location of Russian soldiers and their materials. That information was then used to direct Ukrainian artillery fire.

In Kherson, it all added up to a subtle insurgency that the Ukrainian army pressed on as the southern front drew closer and closer to the city, eventually forcing the Russians to retreat last week. With the city of Kherson now free of Russian troops, the resistance movement rises to the surface.

In the central square this week, Mwg, wearing a balaclava, ran up to Ihor and hugged him tightly.

“The main thing for me is that people stayed alive,” said Smoke. “This worried me the most. But they survived and, thank God, that’s the most important thing.”

There was a time when Ihor wasn’t sure he would.

There was one other person he and Smoke worked with who was also tasked with burying weapons, Ihor said. That man was captured by the Russians and, after being beaten, he abandoned the location where he was supposed to meet Ihor. Ihor was then captured as well, he said, and spent 11 days in August in a detention facility where Russian guards tortured their prisoners.

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As Ihor returned to prison for the first time, accompanied by journalists from the Washington Post, he struggled to hold back tears. Tatyana, a 74-year-old woman who lived next door to the detention centre, said she could hear men screaming every day. “I never wanted to see this place again, but to come back like this is kind of funny,” Ihor said. Some who were standing outside asked Ihor if he had been caught there.

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“I was there too,” said one man.

“Who wasn’t?” Ihor responded.

Because Ihor was still communicating with Smoke, who was based outside in nearby Ukrainian-controlled Mykolaiv, the Russians released him and said they would monitor any text exchanges between the two. They asked Ihor to send screenshots of their conversation whenever there was an update – and threatened his life if he didn’t cooperate.

But Smoke and Ihor had agreed on a subtle code that could be a warning – for example, responding to a message with “okay” instead of “okay.”

Ihor was still taking risks after that. In September, he noticed that the Russians had located several transport trucks in a parking lot near Kherson town center. Ihor walked past the building with a phone to his ear, pretending to be on a call while his camera recorded what was inside. Two days later, the place was hit with artillery.

Several resistance fighters told The Post they reported the location, which helped the Ukrainian armed forces confirm it was a worthy target.

One member of Ukraine’s special services, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said he acted as a handler for several informants during the occupation, who asked to assess what each could do. A person with a car could drive around and identify the locations of soldiers and weapons. Another with a view to a highway could report on the movements of the Russians.

“If, for example, a bridge or an important communication hub, such as power lines, is blown up, then that could have been with our help,” said the handler.

“We are talking about valuable equipment, not only armored personnel carriers, but command and staff vehicles, communication vehicles, air defense or electronic warfare,” added the handler. “Destroying what is expensive and available in small quantities can disable the Russians and give our armed forces a distinct tactical advantage in certain parts of the front.”

Some members of this internal resistance were trained and prepared before Russia ever invaded – just in case, the handler said.

Losing the city of Kherson shatters Putin’s war aims in Ukraine

Others were unlikely partisans, like Iryna, a 58-year-old woman who worked for local government. Iryna, who declined to give her surname out of concern for her safety, had contacts in the SBU, Ukraine’s main internal security service, and regularly passed on information to them about how occupation authorities were organized and who was working with the Russians. . They also had their own code. Once, she even sent a message to her daughter in Bulgaria to forward to her handlers.

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One day, some men described by Iryna as “colleagues” came to her home and asked to bury some things in her yard. He agreed, covering the spot with tomatoes. When Russian soldiers searched her home, she claimed that only a woman was helping to cook meals for the neighborhood.

Her SBU acquaintance visited her earlier this week and dug up what was buried in the yard. “They told me it was all about making explosives,” he said.

Some of the opposition was more public, but for psychological effect. An organization called Yellow Ribbon regularly sprays locations around town — marking Russian organizations with a yellow ribbon symbol or the Ukrainian letter “i.” They targeted Russian banks, places where Russians issued passports, and where referendum votes on Russian annexation were being prepared. The Russians would cover the paint, but the Yellow Ribbon would mark it again.

The organizers tagged home Kirill Stremousov, one notorious officer stationed in Moscow in Kherson who died in a car accident recently. They defaced Russian billboards proclaiming that “Russia is here forever” or “Ukrainians and Russians are one.” And they posted pictures of “colleagues” eating at a restaurant around town or walking down the street.

“Then they all started walking around with bodyguards after that,” said the Yellow Ribbon organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.

One goal, he said, was to make the Russians paranoid about the opposition that existed around them. Sometimes people would take a photo of two Russian soldiers walking from behind, and then the Yellow Ribbon would post it on their Telegram channel, with a warning: “We’re watching you.”

One of the Yellow Ribbon posters hanging in the city referred to HIMARS, a weapons system supplied by the United States to Ukraine. “If HIMARS can’t reach you,” the poster said, “partisan will.”

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