The rapid fall of a key Ukrainian city leaves questions unanswered

KHERSON – When about 100 Russian troops rolled into Kherson’s Lilac Park on the morning of March 1, Oleh Shornik was one of about 20 lightly armed Ukrainian volunteers who stood no chance against them.

The Ukrainian military was nowhere in sight, and Russian troops in armored vehicles had easily entered the Shumensky district, opening fire and hurling shrapnel everywhere, witnesses said. Civilians going to work were hit in the short, bitter struggle. The volunteers hiding among the trees in the park were cut down so quickly that they couldn’t even throw the Molotov cocktails they prepared.

“They didn’t have time to do anything,” Anatolii Hudzenko, who was staying at his house next to the park during the attack, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Seeming to fend for themselves, the civilian volunteers fell quickly. A day later also Kherson.

Thousands of Russian troops advancing from the Crimean Peninsula on February 24 captured the city on the Dnieper so quickly that many residents said they felt abandoned by the Ukrainian military and its rapid retreat, leaving the city without adequate defenses.

But was the doomed Lilac Park grandstand a futile, early act of resistance to a bloody Russian occupation of Kherson? Was it because of the Ukrainian military’s hasty withdrawal so they could regroup to fight another day – indeed retaking the city later in November? Or was it the result of a betrayal by senior Ukrainian security officials collaborating with Moscow?

It’s possible it was a combination of all of these.

Now that Russia has withdrawn from Kherson After the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south, residents want to know why Moscow’s troops were able to overrun the city so easily.

“There are more questions than answers about this story,” says Svetlana Shornik, who is standing at her ex-husband’s grave for the first time because the Russians blocked access to the cemetery during the city’s occupation.

In addition to the volunteers killed in the park, about five others were killed that day at a nearby roundabout.

Families of the dead say they have been trying for months to get information from the military and government to help them complete the deaths of their loved ones.

“I know very little,” Nadiia Khandusenko said, sharing the few facts she knows about the death of her husband Serhii, who was also killed in Lilac Park.

Shornik wiped away tears and told the AP she believes her ex-husband may have suffered in his final minutes because an autopsy revealed the 53-year-old retired police officer was shot in the lung. The bodies lay on the park’s blood-stained grounds for three days because the Russians wouldn’t allow their burial, local residents said.

“They are heroes,” Shornik said. “They practically defended (the city) with their bare hands,” she said.


The Territorial Defense Force of Ukraine began work shortly before the Russian invasion. A volunteer militia commanded by the Department of Defense, it was made up of civilians, part-time reservists and ex-servicemen who fought alongside the regular military.

Despite their lack of training and equipment, the volunteers played a crucial role in the war and were a key reason Kyiv was not occupied, said Mykhailo Samus, founder of the New Geopolitics Research Network, a Ukrainian think tank.

“When a (Russian) sabotage group comes into a town, they expect to see civilians, but they found many people with Kalashnikov guns and it was a disaster for the Russians,” Samus said.

Civilian volunteers failed to hold back Russian forces from Kherson, a pre-war port city of 280,000 that is home to a shipbuilding industry.

Kherson is just north of Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. When Ukraine controlled the city, it was able to cut off the peninsula’s fresh water supply, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of the need to restore water supplies as a reason for an invasion.

The Kherson region is flat and swampy, with few forests or other natural barriers to stop the tanks and troops from nearby Crimea, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and air bases.

In addition, Ukrainian officials, including Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaev, told the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper in May that failure to destroy key bridges to the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions was a mistake that helped the Russians, although he emphasized not to be military.

Ukraine’s outnumbered military has meanwhile withdrawn from Kherson towards the southern city of Mykolayiv, said Maj. Oleksandr Fedyunin, a military spokesman.

This retreat “ensured the survivability of the troops and did not allow the enemy to gain fire superiority in the air,” said Bohdan Senyk, chief army spokesman.

Cherson’s quick capture has raised questions about whether Ukrainian collaborators supported the Russian invasion.

“Russia had its agents planted in Ukraine’s security forces, and the cleanup through Kyiv was slow and inefficient,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine forum at London-based think tank Chatham House. “The price of this betrayal was great human loss.”

On April 1, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed two senior officials of Ukraine’s SBU, including the head of the Kherson regional branch, and stripped them of their ranks of generals for violating their military oath of allegiance. He called them “anti-heroes” and said they had “difficulty determining where their fatherland is”.

He added: “I don’t have time now to deal with all the traitors, but they will all be punished.”

In addition, an aide to one of these SBU officials has been arrested and is facing criminal charges for allegedly handing over maps of minefields and helping coordinate Russian airstrikes that aided Moscow’s armed forces, said Oleksandr Samoilenko, head of the Kherson regional legislature .


The Russian takeover of Kherson – the only regional capital to fall in the war – ushered in a harsh eight-month occupation marked by fierce resistance from the remaining civilian population, including attacks on Moscow-based officials, planting bombs and other threats. Moscow introduced the ruble, set up Russian mobile phone networks and shut down Ukrainian television in the area. Street protests were banned.

As in other Russian-held Ukrainian territories, officials who refused to cooperate were kidnapped, including Kherson Mayor Kolykhaev. Local residents say they have been arrested, beaten, shocked, interrogated and threatened with death at at least five locations in the city and four more in the wider region.

The region was one of four illegally annexed by Moscow in September, although its troops were forced to withdraw weeks later when Ukrainians stepped up their attacks with US-supplied missiles and cut Russian supply lines. The retreating troops left mines and booby traps, closed shops and restaurants and a traumatized population.

In Lilac Park, a small memorial honors the volunteers who fell there. Wreaths are attached to some trees, at the top of which there are some yellow roses and a plaque with a cross and a small Ukrainian flag.

It reads, “On March 1, 2022, Territorial Defense fighters were abducted to heaven.”


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Sarah Y. Kim

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