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 the United States and other allies. Although the Ukrainian authorities have said that the precise location of that push remains a closely guarded secret, military analysts have speculated that it could focus on the east or the south of the country.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said that the Russian authorities were encouraging Ukrainian citizens who live 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.
In Moscow’s view, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are 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.
Although Ukraine has told its citizens in occupied territory not to acquire Russian passports, in many cases it has become effectively impossible in occupied areas to work 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 — as a humanitarian gesture. In November, Moscow’s forces retreated from the regional capital, the city of Kherson.