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Why Kherson, Bracing for Battle, Matters So Much to Russia and Ukraine

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“Today, they blew up the power poles, so we have no light and no water,” he added.

While state media in Russia said that Ukrainian shelling had damaged the power lines, Yaroslav Yanushevych, the exiled Ukrainian head of the Kherson regional military administration, blamed Russian troops.

The Russian forces have also placed mines around water towers in Beryslav, Mr. Yanushevych said, referring to a town less than 50 miles from Kherson city and just north of a critical dam near the front lines of the fighting.

Ukrainian officials say that Russians, who have told civilians to evacuate, fear that those left behind could feed intelligence to the advancing Ukrainian forces or sabotage the Russian military. The Kremlin-appointed governor of the region has warned that any civilians still there could be treated as hostile.

Some 250,000 people lived in the city before the war. Ukrainian activists estimate that 30,000 to 60,000 people remain, but it is impossible to know how accurate such guesses are.

Last month, the occupation authorities ordered the evacuation of civilians from the west side of the river. They sent thousands of them eastward, to territory that is held more firmly by Russia, while blocking routes into Ukrainian-controlled areas. The government installed by Moscow also departed, while looting the city, according to residents and Ukrainian officials.

Some Ukrainian officials and residents say the civilian evacuation was a pretext for forced deportations. Others say it was about clearing space for newly mobilized Russian troops.

When Russian forces stormed across the Antonivsky Bridge over the Dnipro River in March and into Kherson city, a major port and a former shipbuilding center, it marked their biggest success of the early days of the war. Mr. Putin hoped to use the wider Kherson region as a bridgehead for a drive farther west, to the port city of Odesa, but that effort failed.

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