A week ago the SBU announced the capture of a terrorist cell that was based in Odesa and targeting the south-Ukrainian Kherson Oblast. According to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), the operatives were prepared by the Russian Special Services and coordinated by the Luhansk Peoples Republic (LNR.) The cell was reportedly targeting an unidentified facility of the Ukrainian State Penitentiary services and was also planning “attacks related to ethnic minorities in the Kherson Oblast. The attackers planned to conduct propaganda against religious and ethnic minorities.” The head of the SBU later stated that they were planning an attack on a mosque in a village somewhere in Kherson. This follows the late February grenade attack on the local Headquarters of the Crimean Tatars in Kherson.
This is not an isolated incident or an issue fabricated by Ukrainians eager for a headline. Russian propaganda has been pushing for religious/ethnic conflict in Kherson since December (see our previous reporting.) Russian extremist propaganda is circulating the idea of a “Kherson Caliphate” – a supposed autonomous zone for the Crimean Tatars that moved out of occupied Crimea to Kherson that will be swamped with muslim migrants from Türkiye and other countries, and therefore become a terrorist safe-haven. In response, according to Russian propaganda, locals are rising up and forming “militias” that will fight back.
There have been reports in Russian propaganda about these supposed Kherson “militias” for a few months now. A few weeks ago a pro-Russian Ukrainian posted this video on facebook, which is a series of threats from the so-called “Community of Kherson.” This supposed group has featured before in Russian propaganda about Kherson. Russia wants to create the impression that locals are arming themselves and rebelling in Kherson, when in fact the fighters apprehended so far are from elsewhere and connected to the Russian special services. This kind of propaganda behavior mirrors Russia’s creation of the apparently defunct “Kharkiv Partisans” terrorist group in 2014.
The religious and ethnic minorities that the terror cell was planning to attack are probably both the very small Crimean Tatar population in Kherson and, more importantly, the Meskhetian Turks. The Meskhetian Turks are a traditionaly Muslim people from southern Georgia, and they are said to number several thousand in Kherson. Like the Crimean Tatars, they were deported by Stalin to Central Asia, and never permitted to return home by the Soviet Authorities. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and more ethnic persecution in Uzbekistan, many of them fled and settled elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including in Kherson and Donetsk. In 2012 there was even a push to get Turkish accepted as an official regional language in Kherson Oblast. After Russia began the war in East Ukraine, several thousand Meskhetian Turks fled from Donetsk to Türkiye.
Interestingly, Russian propaganda about Kherson does not mention the Meskhetian Turks, though it is full of rumors and reported sightings of “men with a Tatar appearance” causing trouble. It is not in the interests of Russia’s propagandists to point out that there is already a Turkish Muslim population living peacefully in Kherson. They want to create fear and conflict by selling the story of an imminent inundation of Turkish terrorists.
Why are they doing this? The most obvious possible explanation is to punish Ukraine for the Crimean blockade, or pressure the Ukrainian state to clear any Crimean Tatar activists out of Kherson to try to reduce tensions. The creation of fake “indigenous resistance groups” could provide cover for operations of Russian subversives and Special Services in Kherson, in a way similar to what occurred in Eastern Ukraine (though more limited.) Consider also a long-term possibility: The subversion in Donetsk and Luhansk was not created out of nothing in 2014. It was the result of years of Russian effort to spread anti-Ukrainian sentiment and pro-Russian ideas in the population of Eastern Ukraine. (See this excellent documentary from Hormadske TV, with English subtitles, that tracks the creation of the Luhansk Peoples Republic, starting with Russian propaganda a year before war finally started.) Russian propagandists may be preparing the ground for trouble in Kherson over the long-term, and stoking ethnic tensions in Kherson would allow them to build up stores of resentment and suspicion that could one day break out with a bit more Russian prodding.
So far, this is not occurring. The countryside of Kherson is at peace and also quite idyllic. However, Russia is not letting up on its propaganda push. The propaganda produced by Russia about Kherson is inflammatory and Russia should be held accountable for trying to spread chaos and violence to yet another region of Ukraine, all while Russia pretends to be a peace broker in the East.
Here are a few examples of recent Russian propaganda about Kherson:
The “Islamization of Kherson”
The propaganda tabloid Politnavigator has put out a few recent examples of the line that Kherson is turning into an islamist base. According to a recent Russian narrative circulated on that website, sources are “reporting” that Poroshenko and the State Security council of Ukraine are planning to “create a Tatar enclave” along the border with occupied Crimea “the purpose – to crush separatist sentiment, to arrest and imprison all activists, making a clean sweep.”
“…in the Kherson Oblast there are (Crimean) Tatars…The President agreed to create a pseudo-state there in Henichesk, Novotroitske, Kalanchak, and Chaplynka (the rural areas of SE Kherson). This is all incitement. Plus there is inter-faith/inter-confessional bickering. This is also a kind of plan. They are doing this in order to break the balance of the Kherson Oblast..If Kherson suddenly breaks out (in violence) it will be much worse than Donetsk” declared Oleksii Zhuravko, a former politician and a regular source for Russian propaganda “reports” about Kherson. He explained his claim about Kherson being worse than Donetsk: “In Donetsk, it (society) was in large part Orthodox. But we have a problem. We are a multi-confesional Oblast.” He goes on to blame Türkiye and America for sending ammunition, salaries, weapons etc. to the region in order to stoke the coming religious conflict.
The Mejlis are an evil pro-Turkish minority
According to a lengthy article from PolitRussia, the Crimean Tatars in Kherson have three tasks going forward: 1. the destruction of farming in Kherson. (as part of a ‘food blockade’ of Crimea) 2. the achievement of a pro-Turkish radical enclave in Kherson and to 3. serve as the long-term proxy of the Turkish secret services and Turkish radicals. The article makes sure to point out the new regular flight between Kherson and Istanbul as evidence of this relationship.
Warning of an Uprising of Farmers
One of the more “prescient” Russian propaganda outlets during the War in Ukraine has been Svobodnaya Pressa, and they recently posted a fictional scenario describing conflict in Kherson in the spring. In their scenario, power outages in the spring ultimately caused by Crimean Tatar Activists leads to dead crops. Restive farmers protest against the situation and demand funding for relief. When their pleas are not answered, ” Desperate to achieve the saving irrigation of their fields, villagers…of Kalanchak, and Chaplynka (NB, some of the same areas on SE Kherson) rise in revolt.” In response local Ukrainian National Guard units retain the services of Crimean Tatar activists to “massacre the farmers.”