Occupied Ukrainian towns want Russian troops ‘home’

Days after Moscow’s troops took control of the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, a Russian armored truck sped through its center, broadcasting a message over loudspeakers: Protests have been temporarily stopped. prohibited to prevent disorder.

The next day, Saturday, thousands of locals marched through the streets waving Ukrainian flags, singing the national anthem and chanting Russian soldiers in their mother tongue: “Go home! Go home!”

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops were bogged down in much of northern Ukraine amid fierce resistance, they pushed south, capturing several cities and towns.

Mr. Putin has stated that many parts of the country, including the south, are historic lands of Russia and has tried to justify his invasion as necessary to protect the local Russian speakers. . However, after capturing places like Melitopol, his forces there were largely seen as foreign occupiers rather than liberators.

“He thought in these towns we would be happy and meet them with Russian flags, but nobody here is waiting for Russia,” said Andriy Radchenko, a 41-year-old surgeon in Melitopol. “We want to demoralize them, erode their morale.”

Thousands of people protested on Saturday in other occupied cities and towns. The largest demonstrations were in the neighboring capital Kherson, where a man jumped on top of a passing Russian armored vehicle and waved a large Ukrainian flag to cheers from the crowd.

The resistance of locals in predominantly Russian-speaking cities presents a challenge to Mr. Putin. Russian soldiers, who have been told they are on a mission to liberate a brother nation from neo-Nazi rulers, will now have to oppress the very people they are trying to guard.

Local resistance in predominantly Russian-speaking cities presents a challenge to Russian forces. Credit: Tatiana Kumok via Storyful

According to David Edelstein, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, occupying a country like Ukraine, with a territory larger than France and about 40 million people, would require enormous financial and military resources, including hundreds of thousands of troops.

“This is not something that often goes well,” said Edelstein, a career expert. “People just don’t want a foreign power taking over them and telling them how to run their society. They start by waving the flag, and at some point, they pick up the gun.”

A close look at the situation in Melitopol, through interviews with half a dozen residents and analysis of videos, reveals the challenge of transitioning from a military takeover to an occupation.

For the city’s 150,000 residents, the war began with a missile attack on the airport in the early hours of February 24 that woke them up.

Within two days, Russian troops advanced to Melitopol, about 70 miles northeast of Crimea, which Russia captured from Ukraine in 2014. Electricity, heating, telephones and internet connections were cut off in the area. many counties. Residents huddled in bunkers as the fighting raged for hours.

Russia continues shelling Ukrainian cities

Moscow turned to more indiscriminate tactics after encountering strong Ukrainian resistance and civilians continued to evacuate

People cross under a destroyed bridge as they flee the town of Irpin, Ukraine on Sunday.

Oleksandr Ratushniak / Associated Press

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When they surfaced, they saw tanks and Russian troops swarming over their city. The shops were closed and there was little connection to the outside world.

One resident, a teacher and mother of two children, said: “We were terrified. “We didn’t know what to do.”

The occupiers tried to get the local authorities to cooperate, offering the mayor, Ivan Fedorov, a role in the occupation authorities, said Radchenko, a surgeon who is also a city councilor and said he spoke with Mr. Fedorov. The 33-year-old mayor refused, telling the Russians he would focus on getting the city back up and running and taking care of its citizens, Mr. Radchenko said.

The city slowly returned to life, even as it was largely cut off. Russian forces prevented people from entering or leaving. Electricity was restored and the city government organized young men to patrol against looters who emerged after the takeover.

Mr. Fedorov has regularly updated videos on his Facebook page. He described the city as “temporarily occupied.” The Russians raised their flag outside the city buildings where they were based, but the Ukrainian flag still flew in front of everyone else.

Residents describe a spirit of mutual support. The teacher said a woman she didn’t know gave her and her family a 3-quart pot of borscht on the day the Russians arrived, their first warm dish in days.

People in Melitopol speak mainly Russian, partly because the Soviet Union suppressed Ukrainian culture and forced the use of Russian. Most freely switch between the two languages, which are linguistically similar, and many are speaking Ukrainian as a form of passive protest.

On March 1, three days after the Russian army took control, several hundred people gathered in a central square to hold a vigil. They sang the national anthem, waved Ukrainian flags and held up placards that read: “Melitopol is our land.”

After that, they began to move towards the buildings where the Russian troops were stationed. Olga Gaisumova, a 54-year-old entrepreneur who specializes in children’s toys, said: “Things are boiling.

Three days after Russian troops took control of Melitopol, dozens of protesters confronted Russian armored vehicles. Credit: Olga Gaisumova via Storyful

As they approached with their hands in the air and chanted Ukrainian slogans, the Russian army opened fire, which at first appeared to be in the air. “You’re shooting at unarmed people!” shouted a man, adding a curse word.

Then, a young man not far from the famous pizza restaurant Celentano fell to the ground and hugged his leg tightly. “The bastards are shooting in the foot!” said a man. Residents said the victim was rushed to the hospital and survived.

The protests continued. A group of a few dozen people, armed only with rain umbrellas, blocked a few armored vehicles. The two trucks collided with each other as they turned their tails, bringing cheers from the crowd.

Since then, the protests have turned into a daily midday event, growing in size.

The Russians made several attempts to win over the locals. Several Russian trucks have delivered what they describe as humanitarian aid to the town, including canned food. Authorities and Ukrainians say people have come from Crimea to stand in line, posing as grateful locals to bolster the Russian propaganda narrative.

Leaflets addressed to residents appeared. “Russia is not at war with the Ukrainian people!” once read. “Power belongs to the people, not to the Kyiv government.” The notice orders people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary and not to go near Russian troops or vehicles, and recommends Russian propaganda channels as reliable sources of news.

“Are they really that stupid, or did Ukrainian intelligence infiltrate their headquarters?” Tatiana Kumok, owner of a wedding dress shop, wrote on Facebook. “We don’t need leaflets to tell us that power belongs to the people, thanks.”

Thousands of people were detained at protests across Russia on Sunday, in the biggest anti-war marches since the invasion of Ukraine. More than 13,000 protesters have been detained by Russian police in recent weeks. Photo: Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Zuma Press

In his message Friday night, Mr. Fedorov, the mayor, spoke realistically about the criminal penalties for anyone collaborating with the enemy. “The war will end, and absolutely anyone who breaks the law will answer for it,” he said, standing on a public square in front of a large flagpole bearing the Ukrainian flag.

The next day’s performance took on a celebratory mood despite a chilly wind.

A large crowd stretched along a central street. They were led by a car with the trunk and doors open, playing a popular Ukrainian song. A woman clad in a Ukrainian flag and a garland in her hair walked out the passenger door, fisting and shouting a nationalist salute: “Glory to the heroes!”

People approached the soldiers and asked them why they came to Melitopol and if they really thought the protesters were nationalist fanatics. The soldiers, their faces covered by antique heaters, kept out of sight and were silent.

Residents said some soldiers admitted in private conversations that they didn’t want to be there, but would face long prison sentences if they disobeyed orders.

Ms. Gaisumova said. One told her, “We’ve been here forever, and you’re going to Lviv,” a city in western Ukraine near the border with Poland.

Still, she said, locals are ready for the long haul.

“People have the energy to meet each other,” Ms. Gaisumova said. The Russian soldiers were “hungry, unwashed and tired,” she added.

Mr. Fedorov on Sunday night apologized for posting his Facebook video later than usual, saying that “those who are occupying our city” had turned off mobile internet. He offered some good news: A truck was loaded with essentials, including enough insulin for the city’s diabetic children for the rest of the month.

“It will all be over soon,” he said, “and we will live in peace in Melitopol Ukraine.”

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