Russian authorities are further clamping down on local residents in the largely occupied southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, conducting house-to-house searches and requiring people to get Russian driver's licenses and even Russian passports in order to work, a Ukrainian official said.
The comments by Yuriy Sobolevskiy, a top official on the Kherson Regional Council, add to growing evidence of how Russian-imposed authorities are seeking to stamp out any dissent or public opposition ahead of a Moscow-orchestrated referendum that is widely expected in the coming weeks. Such a vote, which Kyiv and independent observers say would be illegitimate, would likely pave the way for Moscow to claim the region as part of Russia.
Kherson and the neighboring region of Zaporizhzhya are the focus of increasingly intense fighting as Ukraine is poised to mount a counteroffensive against Russian forces -- an effort believed to be aimed, in part, at disrupting any potential referendum.
Over the weekend, Ukraine hit the last remaining intact bridge over the Dnieper River near Kherson, badly damaging it and hampering Russian efforts to resupply forces on the river's west bank or evacuate remaining troops. The head of the neighboring Mykolayiv region, Vitaliy Kim, said on August 13 that high-ranking Russian officers were being pulled from the west bank positions, though there was no immediate confirmation.
The Kherson region was largely occupied by Russian forces shortly after the February 24 invasion, and they moved quickly to try and establish control but were thinly stretched, Sobolevskiy said in an interview with Current Time on August 13. Now there are officers from Russia’s National Guard -- a domestic paramilitary police force -- in Kherson, along with the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Russia's primary security agency.
"Now, entire settlements are being subjected to sweeps, with 100-150 Russian guardsmen arriving accompanied by the FSB," Sobolevskiy said. "In fact, each settlement is simply blocked, entry and exit, and every house in the settlement is checked there, if we are talking about small villages or small towns.
"They check everything: documents, contents of mobile phones, garages, vehicles. There are several goals. First of all, they have a very large list of disloyal people, because the resistance in the Kherson region is very massive and very active," he said.
Torture, Disappearances In Occupied South
While Kherson and Zaporizhzhya saw an exodus of people who fled Kherson, mainly after the Russians took control, many have remained. Human rights activists have documented credible cases of Russian forces using torture, unlawful detention, and forcible disappearance.
"Russian forces have turned occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and wild lawlessness," Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in a report released in July. "Torture, inhumane treatment, as well as arbitrary detention and unlawful confinement of civilians, are among the apparent war crimes we have documented, and Russian authorities need to end such abuses immediately and understand that they can, and will, be held accountable."
Last week, Russian occupying authorities began issuing Russian driver’s licenses and license plates with Russian tags on them, the Russian state news agency TASS reported. Authorities have also begun distributing the Russian currency, the ruble, to replace the Ukrainian hryvnya.
"It's impossible to carry out any [referendum] if it does not have the full support of the population. It is impossible to rebuild the medical system of the Kherson region…if the chief doctors almost all refuse to cooperate, if they've left, the heads of departments refused to cooperate and left, and doctors simply refuse to work in this system," he said. "The same goes for education."
Russian authorities were scrambling to replace public sector workers, for example teachers and doctors, recruiting Russian citizens to work in the region with above-average salaries, Sobolevskiy said.
For doctors, he said, administrators required doctors who wanted to keep their jobs to accept bank payment cards issued by Russian banks, with salaries issued in rubles.
"And now it has come to pass that if you want to work, if you want to receive your money, if you want to treat people, you have to apply for a passport," Sobolevskiy said.
Asked what percentage of the population had voluntarily applied for, or received, a Russian passport, he indicated that it was minuscule and attributed this to Ukrainian loyalty and aversion to the occupying authorities.
"It's objectively negligible," he said. "It's not even small; it's calculated not even as a percentage. Most of those [receiving passports] are pensioners."
Passports And Payments
It wasn’t immediately possible to corroborate Sobolevskiy's comments, though his assertions of public workers being forced to assent to payment in rubles was echoed by Ukraine’s military intelligence service, which said Kherson ambulance workers were also being forced to receive their pay in the Russian currency.
Russian authorities have shuttered branches and ATMs belonging to Ukrainian banks and have also shut the offices of Ukraine's postal service, which is often used to transfer money or for retirees to receive pensions.
"Some pensioners who received their pensions in cash have lost the ability to receive this money at all," Sobolevskiy said. "And those who received a pension on a card are extremely limited in the use of this money, because Ukrainian terminals have been removed from stores, you can't pay with a card in the market, and it is extremely difficult to transfer money. They try to block all services as much as possible."
The military intelligence agency also said in its August 14 assessment that Kherson residents who receive humanitarian aid have been forced to fill out personal questionnaires. And, the agency said, people are being enticed to use Russian mobile phone providers, with offers of large data usage in exchange for providing passport information.
Sobolevskiy predicted that "a meager percentage" of the region's population will end up voluntarily getting Russian passports.
"These are traitors who crossed the line, betrayed themselves, betrayed their people, their country, their children -- they betrayed everything," he said.