The Russian occupation authorities are preparing to evacuate civilians from territory that Moscow controls in southern Ukraine before a potential counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday.
Ukraine is widely expected to launch a counteroffensive in the coming weeks to recapture territory from Russian forces, aided by an influx of sophisticated weapons from its Western allies. Although the Ukrainian authorities have said that the precise location of that push remains a closely guarded secret, military analysts and some Ukrainian officials have said that it could focus on the south of the country.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said that the Russian authorities were encouraging Ukrainian citizens in occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of southern Ukraine to get Russian passports and then move south to the Crimean Peninsula. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, and then did so with Zaporizhzhia and Kherson last October in a move that was widely condemned.
“The Russian occupiers intensified preparations for the evacuation of the local population in the temporarily occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson,” the General Staff said in its morning update. In the cities of Melitopol and Skadovsk in the Zaporizhzhia region, it said, the occupation authorities conducted a survey about possible evacuation and checked that residents had Russian identity documents.
“The invaders are spreading information that the forced evacuation of the civilian population will begin at the end of April,” the General Staff update said.
While Moscow has occupied all of Crimea, it only has partial control of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. In recent weeks, both Russia and Ukraine have been massing their forces along the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region amid the speculation of a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive there.
Military analysts believe that Ukraine is hoping to drive a wedge through Russian occupied territory along the southern coasts of the Black and Azov Seas, near Crimea, or to seek a humiliating turnabout in the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine — or both.
To succeed in retaking the occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv would have to disrupt the flow of weapons and supplies in and out of the Crimean Peninsula. In the south, a thrust of about 50 miles over the steppe from the current front lines to the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol would split Russian-held territory into two zones, sever supply lines and put Ukrainian artillery within range of Russian bases on the Crimean Peninsula.
Part of Ukraine’s argument in asking for longer-range missiles from its allies has been that it wants to be able to strike deeper behind Russian lines, including in Crimea. Although the Biden administration long held a hard line against doing so, in recent months that stance has softened.
On Saturday, the Kremlin-installed head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that a missile “launched from the Ukrainian side” had been downed over Feodosiya on the eastern coast of Crimea. It was impossible to independently confirm his claim, which if true would suggest that Ukraine had developed longer-strike capability. There was also no immediate comment from Ukraine’s military. Kyiv has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity around strikes on the peninsula, which to date have largely involved attack drones.
In Moscow’s view, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are also now legally part of Russia. And encouraging Ukrainians to take up Russian passports has been part of a broader strategy that Moscow has pursued in the yearlong war, with the aim of integrating those areas into Russia’s administrative structures.
Those “Russification” efforts — an attempt to deepen Moscow’s hold on occupied areas — also have included forcing teachers to teach a Russian curriculum in Russian, replacing local officials with occupation appointees and replacing the Ukrainian currency with the Russian ruble.
Evacuations from occupied areas are an attempt to replace Ukrainians who oppose the occupation and replace them with Russian patriots, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. That has included the forced deportation of Ukrainian children, he said, for which the International Criminal Court last month issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“They deport not only kids, but everyone and especially people who do not accept the occupation. They bring those who support it,” he said in an interview, calling the policy systematic. “Russia is trying to erase Ukrainian identity on different levels even if they are suffering losses on the front line.”
Although Ukraine has told its citizens in occupied territory not to acquire Russian passports, in many cases it has become effectively impossible to work there or to gain access to medicine or housing without them.
It was not possible to independently confirm the Ukrainian military’s claims, and there was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities. But they came after a member of the regional council in Kherson, Serhiy Khlan, said on Friday that Russia was pressuring residents in occupied territory to acquire passports and re-register other identity documents — and they also would echo similar efforts that played out earlier in the war.
Last fall, pro-Russia proxies in occupied parts of the Kherson region spent weeks pushing Ukrainian residents to evacuate from territory controlled by Moscow as a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces gathered pace. At that time, they presented the evacuations — which Ukrainian officials and some locals said involved forcing some people against their wishes deeper into Russian-held territory, or into Russia itself — as a humanitarian gesture. In November, Moscow’s forces retreated from the regional capital, the city of Kherson.
Soon after, Russian forces launched an offensive that aimed to secure complete control of the Donbas region, where Moscow already held substantial ground. But evidence has been mounting that the campaign has failed to make much progress despite months of bitter fighting. The focal point of much of it has been around the city of Bakhmut, where Ukraine’s military on Saturday said that intense battles were continuing.
Russia has used convicts and mercenaries to wear down Ukraine in the fight for Bakhmut, stretching Kyiv’s exhausted, battered soldiers to the limit. Both sides have suffered large-scale casualties there.
In Moscow on Saturday, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, which has borne the brunt of the fighting in Bakhmut, joined mourners at a funeral for Vladlen Tatarsky, also known as Maxim Fomin, the prominent military blogger killed by a bomb in a St. Petersburg cafe last weekend. Mr. Tatarsky had been a vocal cheerleader for Wagner, and Mr. Prigozhin issued a statement lauding him for doing “a lot so that we could go to victory and destroy the enemy.”
While fighting has raged for Bakhmut in the east, since being driven out of Kherson, Russian units in the south have been building defensive positions, which could present challenges for any potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukrainian officials have warned against making predictions about their military moves, cautioning that only a handful of people know when or where any counteroffensive would take place.
In recent days, however, classified war documents detailing American and NATO plans for building up the Ukrainian military before a planned counteroffensive have been leaked online.
Each side has blamed the other for the leak, with Russia saying that the West was responsible and Ukraine saying that it was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, driven by fears about a coming counteroffensive.
Mr. Podolyak maintained the Ukrainian authorities had determined that the leak contained little useful information and none of an operational nature.
“The main aim is to create an uncomfortable environment and to try to destroy trust between Ukraine’s partners and to cause some countries to make excuses for this info having appeared,” he said.
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