The Key To Russian Defeat In Kherson

The remains of the Ninel Hotel, a hotel taken over by Russian security officials that was hit by the Ukrainian military on October 5, are seen in downtown Kherson, Ukraine November 17, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Landay/File Photo

Ukrainian intelligence wanted confirmation last autumn that officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) overseeing the occupation of Kherson were staying in a small hotel on a back street of the southern port city.

The task was assigned to Dollar: the code name for a civilian who had been secretly providing targeting coordinates and information on enemy operations in Kherson and the surrounding region, the operative said.

Reuters held extensive interviews with Dollar and two other members of the underground partisan network in Kherson after the city was captured in early November.

Their separate accounts provide a rare window into how information and sabotage operations were coordinated with Ukrainian intelligence services behind enemy lines, operations that are still ongoing elsewhere in Ukraine.

While Reuters could not corroborate the specific events they described, two U.S. officials said that such operations by an underground of intelligence operatives, ex-soldiers and amateurs helped hasten Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson – one of the biggest setbacks for the Kremlin in a war that marks its first anniversary on Feb. 24.

Dollar, who declined to give his name for security reasons, said he began driving by the Hotel Ninel – Lenin spelled backwards – with his wife, a fellow operative who is part of the network and uses the code name Kosatka, Ukrainian for killer whale.

The gun-toting security men they regularly saw outside the hotel convinced the couple that FSB officers were staying inside; Dollar said he texted his observations to his handler at the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

Ukraine’s SBU and Russia’s FSB did not respond to requests for comment on Dollar’s account or other partisan operations. The defense ministry also did not respond to requests for comment.

Before dawn on Oct. 5, a huge explosion ripped through the hotel, according to Ukrainian media reports and regional lawmaker Serhii Khlan, who wrote on Facebook that two FSB officers and seven Russian military officials died.

“I received an SMS (text) that said, ‘Have a look and see how the Hotel Ninel is doing,'” recalled Dollar, who took Reuters to view the shattered hulk. “I went over and reported back: ‘There is no more Hotel Ninel.'”

Reuters was unable to review the text message. Dollar and other partisans say they regularly deleted their chats and social media for security reasons.

Dollar and Kosatka received decorations from Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov inscribed with thanks for “cooperating with the armed forces,” according to a photograph seen by Reuters dated Dec. 1 in which the inscriptions are visible. Mart and Kolia, the other two members of their four-person cell, were also decorated by Reznikov, Dollar said.

Asked about resistance operations in occupied territory, an official from Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) said “the local population is supportive,” declining to provide details of specific activities.

Operations to target Russian security personnel and disrupt their plans are continuing across swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine held by Russia and its allies, according to several Ukrainian and Russian-installed officials as well as members of the Kherson partisan cell.

The Institute for the Study of War also says Ukrainian partisan warfare is being waged in Melitopol, Tokmak and Mariupol in the south and Donetsk and Svatove in the east.

Serhiy Haidai, the exiled governor of the eastern Luhansk province which has been under Russian control since last June, said partisans there were conducting sabotage operations there and attacks on suspected Russian collaborators.

In an interview on Jan. 23, he credited partisans with a recent attack on a railway line that Russia’s military was using to transport troops and equipment. He declined to provide further details for security reasons and Reuters could not independently confirm partisan involvement in the attacks.

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