From firing positions on the other side of the river, Russian troops are relentlessly shelling the city they claim to be theirs. After what was initially a quiet withdrawal from Kherson, Russian forces appear to have regrouped on the east bank of the Dnieper in recent days, sending artillery, rockets and mortars into residential areas of Kherson.
The renewed bombardment highlights the limits of Ukraine’s victory in retaking the city of Kherson, confirming a sobering reality that military experts had been warning about for months: By withdrawing, the Russians had strategically relinquished an inherently weak position in the city on the west side of the river, only to dig into more favorable and fortified defensive positions on the opposite bank.
With the bridges blown up, the Dnieper proves to be a natural barrier that Ukrainian troops will not cross without suffering heavy casualties, and Russia is retaining its grip on the wider Kherson region for now, including the crucial Kakhovka hydroelectric power station and the North Crimean Canal . a vital supply of fresh water for Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
In the city of Kherson, sympathies for Russia complicate reintegration in Ukraine
Perhaps Russia’s worst renewed attack was here in Antonivka, a stone’s throw from what was once the main bridge, where a cluster bomb sent shrapnel to the face of 13-year-old Matvii Kindra on Tuesday morning.
His father, Serhii Kindra, was driving Matvii and his brother back home from a humanitarian aid meeting at a church when the blast hit their car. The 42-year-old father and his other 10-year-old son suffered minor injuries.
But Matvii, a passionate martial artist, was in critical condition in a hospital’s intensive care unit. His father stood outside the hospital, trembling and clenched, with his son’s blood still on his forehead and nose. His youngest son paced silently beside him, holding back tears as he looked toward the hospital.
“We liberated the city,” Kindra said, “but the war is not over yet.”
Kindra, a popular master of ceremonies at weddings and events in Kherson, had not yet reached his wife to tell her the news. She was assisting a group of Red Cross workers at the time, Kindra said.
The village of Antonivka, a formerly quiet riverside suburb of Kherson, where street ads still advertise vacation rentals, has become a front line.
At least six people have been killed in Russian attacks on the city in the past five days, according to the mayor, Serhii Ivashchenko, 42. Ivashchenko said he fears the bloodshed could get worse.
Antonivka is the city closest to the bridge of the same name, and the areas in the city closest to the river are now largely exposed to Russian forces.
About an hour after Kindra and his sons were hit by cluster munitions near the bridge, Washington Post journalists passed the family’s wrecked car in an underpass often used by residents to enter the suburb’s eastern neighborhoods.
Joy ride: Kherson cheers as the first post-occupation train pulls in from Kiev
The sniper fire whizzed by, making it clear that the Russians on the other side of the river were still close.
A Ukrainian military checkpoint was previously stationed at the bridge and blocked some drivers. But the checkpoint became a target, Ivashchenko said, forcing the army to move it closer to the city of Kherson.
Throughout Kherson, officials have offered voluntary evacuations, warning residents that a cold, dangerous winter is ahead. The evacuations come days after residents of Kherson cheered the arrival of the first train from Kiev, marketed as a “Train to Victory”.
Most of the city is without power and running water, after Russian troops destroyed Kherson’s power supply before withdrawing. In parts of the city, especially in Antonivka, cell phones are inaccessible or difficult to reach, making it more difficult for officials to keep residents informed or to call for help.
Just a 10-minute drive from Kherson’s city center, where coffee shops and restaurants are reopening and bands have played concerts in the main square, Antonivka’s streets remain bare.
Rockets litter the front yards of residents, who leave their homes only to queue for humanitarian aid. But aid stations are also attacked. At a recent food distribution attended by the mayor of Kherson, a crowd was forced to lie flat amid shelling.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ivashchenko begged an official outside the temporary offices of Kherson City Hall to stop publishing the exact addresses where they distributed aid. He suspected that Russian sympathizers were still in his village, sending information to troops across the river and helping coordinate attacks.
“They are insane and can use that information to target it,” Ivashchenko told the official. “If you do want to post it somewhere, take the responsibility from me.”
Before the invasion, Ivashchenko was one of three people who helped run the village, which was once home to about 13,000 people. That population has now dwindled to 3,000, and the other two city leaders have not returned to town, fearing for their lives. Now Ivashchenko drove around the city handing out bags of food.
“When Kherson and the villages were liberated, there were signs that things were opening up in Antonivka,” the mayor said. “But in the last five days the situation has changed.”
Covert Kherson resistance fighters undermined the Russian occupiers
A crowd of dozens of people gathered at one of these humanitarian aid stations as the temperature dropped below freezing. They could see their breath as they asked neighbors for help finding food and water.
Residents said they knew they were unprotected in the line of Russian fire. But they had no choice but to wait there, in the cold, for food.
Illia Kobits, 74, said shrapnel was strewn all over his lawn. The air, meanwhile, has become louder and louder.
The river, he said, is a huge natural boundary. He is not sure when – or how – the Ukrainian forces will succeed in pushing the Russians further back.
“It won’t happen soon,” he said.