Russian forces have tried to intimidate local officials working in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and deployed officers from a notorious, now-disbanded riot police unit as part of that effort, a local administration official said.
In an interview, Serhiy Khlan, deputy chief of the Kherson regional council, also described in more detail an effort by Russian officials to organize a sham independence referendum, in a pretext for formally taking over the region or simply prying it away from central government control.
Kherson, located not far from the administrative border separating Ukraine proper from the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea, became the first major Ukrainian city to be taken over by Russian forces on March 5.
Thousands of Kherson residents rallied in the city center on March 13, in an unusual public display of protest against Russian forces.
People marched through the streets chanting “Russian soldiers are fascist occupiers!” In one video posted to social media by Kherson officials, gunfire can be heard as Russian soldiers fired weapons into the air in an apparent effort to frighten marchers.
Kherson officials have reported dire conditions in the city and surrounding regions, even as residents tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Electricity was restored in one suburb, and repair workers were trying to patch pipelines and restore home heating gas. The city said it planned to resume classes in schools on March 14.
Speaking to Current Time on March 12, Khlan said that Russian military forces have remained on the outside of city limits, but civilian police and government officials have been sent into the city -- most likely, he said, under orders from Russia’s National Guard, a highly militarized civilian police force.
He also said that the police officers being deployed under Russian orders included former members of a feared Ukrainian riot police unit known as the “Berkut.”
The unit was notorious for violent repressions against protesters, and was blamed for most of the shooting deaths of Ukrainian civilians that occurred in February 2014, in the final days of the Maidan street protests.
The “Berkut” unit was disbanded by the government that took over after President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine; many of its officers fled to Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“Kherson is effectively under the control of the Russian National Guard. They are the so-called police. These are people from the Berkut who, after the Maidan in 2014 fled Ukraine. Now they are returning, filled with hate for Ukrainians,” he said.
“The Russians are deploying them in occupied towns to form an administration and install their so-called Russian order.,” he added.
Khlan said Russian officials appeared to be searching for pro-Ukrainian activists and lawmakers, many of whom have gone into hiding.
"They are in hiding, but they are being searched for. There have been raids. [The Russians] are looking for them in Kherson and the surrounding region. Those councilors who received telephone calls refused [to collaborate]. They refused but they were threatened. They were threatened with being shot," he said.
City councilor Ilya Karamalykov echoed those sentiments, cautioning local residents trying to get around to remember that they have to pass through Russian checkpoints.
"Keep in mind that you are seen, first as an enemy, and only then as a person who goes for potatoes,” he told Crimea.Realities, a regional news unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
“Plus, there is confirmed information that Russians go from house to house on some of their lists. And they are looking for some people. Today I was told that they were looking for Crimean Tatars.”
Khlan also said Russian officials have indicated to him and others that they plan to organize a referendum in the Kherson region as a pretext for the region to declare independence, similar to what happened in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Swaths of both those regions have been controlled by Russia-backed militias for years.
"I got a call, with a...proposal to work with the new regional administration. They need it to legitimize themselves. They need to gather local councilors who would support a so-called referendum on the independence of a 'people's republic' of Kherson he said.
"As we can see, Putin can't think up anything new. He has done absolutely the same thing -- he is forcing the federalization of Ukraine by force," he added.
“And the fact that they managed to occupy almost the entire Kherson region today, they use it for their propaganda purposes in order to make a fake picture that Kherson already wants independence and wants to recognize its independence as part of, probably” Russia, Khlan said.