By Paul Kirby
Russian officials say they have completed an operation to move civilians out of the occupied southern city of Kherson ahead of an expected battle with advancing Ukrainian forces.
At least 70,000 civilians are said to have crossed to the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro river, in what Ukraine has called forced deportations.
“We’re preparing Kherson for defence,” one Russian militia commander said.
Meanwhile, Russia said it had mobilised the required 300,000 reservists.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that 41,000 of those called up had already been deployed to the battlefield in Ukraine. The numbers have not been independently verified.
The minister’s comments come amid growing public anger across Russia over the mobilisation drive.
Soon after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Mr Putin pledged that only those on contracts with the armed forces would be sent to fight in Ukraine. But in September he was forced to order a partial mobilisation, following a string of military defeats.
Mr Shoigu was warned on Friday by a member of the Russian parliament that recruits were being sent to the front line without training. Maxim Ivanov said it was unacceptable to send recruits to places such as Donetsk unprepared.
In his video address late on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s mobilised soldiers “are so poorly prepared and equipped, so ruthlessly used by the command” that Russia “may soon need a new wave” of mobilisation.
He also accused Moscow of trying to turn the Kherson region “into a zone without civilisation” by dismantling the entire healthcare system and other critical infrastructure there.
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Ukraine’s southern Kherson region was one of four areas of Ukraine declared annexed by Vladimir Putin last month, despite Russia not having total control of any of them.
Kherson city was captured shortly after Russia’s invasion began – but in recent weeks Ukrainian forces have steadily recaptured territory on the west or right bank of the Dnipro. The front line is 30km (18 miles) away from the city, according to Ukrainian officials.
There will soon be an attack on the regional capital, according to newly installed Russian officials. However, Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s minister of defense, described the counteroffensive as extremely challenging due to the challenging terrain and wet weather, which make it more difficult to use fighting vehicles with wheels.
On Thursday night, Sergei Aksyonov, the man appointed by Russia’s occupying authorities in annexed Crimea, posted images of the Dnipro River bank while on a visit with Sergei Kiriyenko, a prominent Kremlin official.
He declared, “The work on organizing the departure of residents has been finished. Authorities in charge of the occupation claim they have been relocated to “safe regions of Russia,” which, according to reports, also include Russia itself and other regions of Ukraine under Russian control.
Alexander Khodakovsky, the head of the Russian militia, said: “We’re clearing out the civilian population, which in many ways frees our hands.”
A war crime is considered to be the deportation or transfer of civilians by an occupying power inside or outside the occupied territory.
Many civilians had stayed, a different official appointed by Russia acknowledged. Russian-installed Kherson governor Vladimir Saldo estimated that 150–170,000 people still lived in and around the city on the right (western) bank of the Dnipro River. There were about 300,000 people living in the city alone before the war.
The figures provided by the Russian occupying authorities have been contested by Ukrainian officials.
Last week, a local told the BBC that nobody was leaving and that Russian soldiers were concerned about how they would survive in Kherson.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, one of the war’s staunchest supporters, acknowledged that a Chechen unit had suffered “big losses” in the area this week. He stated that a Ukrainian artillery attack had resulted in the deaths of 23 fighters and the wounding of 58 others, but he continued to assert that his forces had killed many more Ukrainians.
Serhiy Khlan, the regional governor of Ukraine in Kherson, claimed that recently mobilized soldiers were replacing Kadyrov’s men. He claimed that minefields were being dug up near the regional capital, and the new recruits were now serving as Russia’s first line of defense.
Ukrainian officials claim that Russia has relocated its occupying force to the town of Henichesk, about 200 kilometers to the southeast, prior to any battle for Kherson City.
The Russians were attempting to hold on to the right bank of the Dnipro, but Natalya Humenyuk, a military spokeswoman for Ukraine, said they were also preparing to defend the opposite bank, which was a “telling sign they understand the real situation, which is that they are unlikely to hold on to the right bank.”
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