December 4, 2022

Kyiv/MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — Russia ordered civilians to evacuate part of Ukraine along the east bank of the Dnipro River, a key extension of an evacuation order that Kyiv said amounts to forced depopulation of occupied territories.

Russia had previously ordered civilians out of a pocket it controlled on the west bank of the river, where Ukrainian troops were advancing to capture the city of Kherson. Officials deployed by Russia said Tuesday they would now also extend that order to a 15km buffer zone along the east bank.

Ukraine says the evacuations include forced deportations from occupied territories, a war crime. Russia, which claims to have annexed the territory, says it is keeping civilians safe because Ukraine could risk using unconventional weapons.

“Due to the possibility of the use of prohibited warfare methods by the Ukrainian regime, as well as the information that Kyiv is preparing a massive missile attack on the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, there is an imminent threat that the Kherson region will be flooded,” said Vladimir Sagte Saldo, the head appointed by Russia the occupied province of Kherson, in a video message.

“The decision [to expand the evacuation zone] will make it possible to build multi-layered defenses to repel Ukrainian attacks and protect civilians,” he said.

Moscow has accused Kyiv of planning to use a so-called “dirty bomb” to spread radiation or blow up a dam to flood towns and villages in Kherson province. Kyiv says accusations that it would use such tactics on its own territory are absurd, but that Russia could plan such actions itself in order to blame Ukraine.

The mouth of the wide Dnipro River has become one of the most momentous front lines of the war in recent weeks.

Russia has thousands of troops in its only western bank pocket and has been trying to reinforce the area. Ukraine’s advance has slowed in recent days, with commanders citing increasingly wet and cold weather and more difficult terrain.

Saldo identified seven east bank towns that would now be evacuated, including the main populated settlements along that stretch of the river.

In the city of Kherson, the streets were practically empty on Tuesday, and most shops and businesses were closed. A handful of people boarded a ferry at a jetty to cross to the east bank of the Dnieper, though a few men were still fishing peacefully, apparently indifferent to the distant rumble of artillery fire.

Some residents remained defiant despite being asked to leave.

“Why should I go? … For what reason? I’ll stay here to the end,” said Ekaterina, a shopkeeper, referring to the house her ancestors built “with their own hands.”

mobilization of Russia

The European Union on Tuesday accused Moscow of launching a new scheme to illegally conscript men in Crimea, whom Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, to fight in its armed forces. The EU statement said Moscow was recruiting a disproportionate number of members of Crimea’s indigenous Tatar minority to fight in its war.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February in what it calls a “special military operation” to eliminate dangerous nationalists and protect Russian speakers. Kyiv calls Moscow’s actions an unprovoked imperialist land grab.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it had completed a mobilization operation ordered by President Vladimir Putin in September, as 300,000 reservists had been called up and no more were needed.

But the Kremlin said Tuesday Putin would not issue a new decree formally ending the mobilization. That has raised concerns that it could be rebooted without notice.

Thousands of Russian men have fled abroad to avoid conscription in a conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions, shaken the global economy and reopened Cold War-era divisions.

Russia fired a huge volley of missiles at Ukrainian cities on Monday in what Putin described as retaliation for an attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet over the weekend. Ukraine said it shot down most of those missiles, but some hit power plants and shut down electricity and water supplies.

“That’s not all we could have done,” Putin said at a television press conference.

French President Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call that France would help repair water and energy infrastructure damaged by Russian strikes. Macron said Paris will host an international conference in support of Ukrainian civilians on December 13.

grain ships

Putin has also suspended Russia’s cooperation with a Turkey-UN-backed program to escort cargo ships carrying grain out of the war zone. The three-month-old company had ended a de facto Russian blockade of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain producers, and averted a global food crisis.

Russia’s decision has raised fears that the food crisis could return, but so far a lockdown has not been restored. Three ships left Ukrainian ports on Tuesday morning as part of the program, after 12 ships left port on Monday.

Program administrators said Tuesday’s deliveries were agreed by Ukrainian, Turkish and UN delegations and Moscow was briefed, an apparent sign of a willingness to proceed without Russian cooperation.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Putin in a phone call on Tuesday that he was convinced of “solution-oriented cooperation” in the grain export business.

North of Kherson, Russia fired four rockets at the Ukrainian port of Mykolayiv overnight, destroying half a house. Reuters saw rescue workers remove the body of an elderly woman from the rubble.

As rush hour began, passers-by walked past a two-story school whose frontage had been blown off by the force of an explosion from another rocket, leaving a huge crater in its wake.

“That’s what the barbaric horde is doing,” said Irena Siden, 48, the school’s deputy principal, who stood in front of the burned-out building as workers began clearing the rubble. – Reuters