The blockade and blackout of Crimea got the Kremlin’s attention. Putin may be preparing a response to expand his hybrid war to Kherson Oblast. Russian propaganda trumpeted the formation of supposed “self defense groups” or “partisan bands” in Crimea, Donbas, and Kharkiv right before Russia attacked these regions. The same pattern seems to be repeating in Kherson Oblast. Late last week a couple of videos surfaced of a Kherson farmer and a local politician complaining about thefts and coercion from individuals wore the uniform of the Ukrainian Aidar territorial battalion. These videos were quickly picked up by Russian propaganda, which proclaimed that “residents of Kalanchatskyi District, Kherson Oblast are arming themselves and uniting in self defense units.” Kalanchatskyi District shares a border with occupied Crimea.
Three days ago Russia’s Luhansk separatist project reached out to the new propaganda project in Kherson. The head of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Iigor Plotnitsky wrote an open letter to the people of Kherson, which was immediately translated into English on a separatist-linked website. He decried their “suffering” from the “battalions controlled by Kiev and former Crimean Tatar and now Kherson-Turkish radicals.” and then proposes that if their “elected people’s representatives” appealed to the LNR for help “we will figure out how to help.” He concludes his letter with the cry: “Long live the future People’s Republic of Kherson…”
While all this propaganda is going on, farmers in Kherson did indeed protest recently and block the highway from Kherson to Odessa, though they were protesting against amendments to the tax code. Also, there is probably some friction between the blockade participants and locals, which is not unusual whenever a large group of soldiers or activists begins activity on a new territory. The timing of this Russian propaganda push of impending violence alongside the peaceful protests of Kherson locals indicates a Russian attempt to co-opt local grievances and launch a separatist project using them as cover. The previously mentioned Russian propaganda outlet News Front published a story yesterday titled “The Crimean Blockade and the Genocide Budget could lead to a Popular Uprising in the Kherson Region.” The story appears to have been quickly taken down. Perhaps it was published too soon? As in Donbas, as in Crimea, Russia is taking the cover of local grievances to build a narrative of repression, foreign influence, and armed locals rising up. What is Putin’s next step?