The Russian-installed government of Kherson, a provincial capital in Ukraine occupied by the Russian military since March, ordered the city’s residents to leave for Russian territory “immediately” as Ukrainian troops approach the city from the north and east as part of a broader counteroffensive.
The city’s administration posted the directive to its official Telegram channel on Saturday, warning that those who remained within the city would be subjected to shelling and “terror attacks” by incoming Ukrainian forces. It recommended that civilians planning to leave the city cross the Dnieper River by boat, as the bridges connecting the city on the river’s left bank to Russian territory on its right have largely been destroyed.
The city’s pro-Kremlin authorities had previously announced that they intended to evacuate roughly 60,000 civilians across the river in the coming weeks. Vladimir Saldo, the leader of the occupation administration and a former member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, claimed that the evacuation measures would result in “organized, gradual displacement.” Kirill Stremousov, Saldo’s deputy, had previously announced that 25,000 civilians had evacuated the city by boat and stressed that the evacuation efforts would continue to be voluntary.
In recent months, Ukrainian and Western observers have raised concerns about the status of Ukrainian civilians evacuated to Russia to escape the conflict. Many Ukrainian civilians have reportedly been placed in “filtration camps” intended to screen them for ideological leanings, with pro-Ukrainian civilians subjected to beatings or forced disappearances. Kyiv has urged civilians in Kherson to remain in the city and wait for the Ukrainian military to recapture it.
Russia captured Kherson in the first week of March, during the second week of its invasion of Ukraine. The city remains the only Ukrainian provincial capital captured by Russia, and its swift fall raised suspicions of betrayal in Kyiv, prompting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to fire two high-level officials in connection with the incident. Russia declared in September that it had “annexed” Kherson, along with the neighboring regions of Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk, although the “referendum” in support of the annexation was widely criticized abroad for its lack of transparency and international observation.
Following the referendum, however, Ukrainian troops have continued to make progress in the country’s south and east, leading Russian leader Vladimir Putin to declare martial law in the occupied Ukrainian territories.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.