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Russia intends to annex Kherson in southern Ukraine

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's intentions in Ukraine are becoming clearer. Earlier this month, an official installed by Russia in the Kherson region said he wants Russia to annex the area, just as it did with nearby Crimea in 2014. The Russians have occupied Kherson since early March and are trying to turn it into a Russian city. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Russia recently celebrated Victory Day, which marks the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, Russian-installed officials organized a celebration in Kherson as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: They put up billboards with hammers and sickles on otherwise empty streets, as captured in this Russian government video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

LANGFITT: Several dozen people went to a local monument to the war dead, where they waved red Soviet-era flags. Thank you, Grandpa, for the victory, they chanted. Russia has installed a Ukrainian named Kirill Stremousov as deputy head of its government there. Stremousov, who's best known as a pro-Russian blogger, says he plans to phase in the ruble as the local currency. He laid out his vision for the region on YouTube.

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KIRILL STREMOUSOV: (Through interpreter) We will integrate as much as possible into the Russian Federation. All those citizens in the Kherson region will have the right to obtain Russian citizenship, Russian passports so they can be a part of a state that has the potential to provide stable social assistance and security.

LANGFITT: But Kherson residents I spoke with say life there is hardly secure or stable - for instance, a woman named Olha (ph). She's 31. She said Russian-controlled checkpoints have choked off food shipments, and the new Russian-backed government disbanded many public services.

OLHA: (Through interpreter) There's no food, no police. Nobody will protect you. You have no one to turn to. You're just scared. At some point, it just breaks your spirit, and you want to leave.

LANGFITT: Last month, Olha fled to the Black Sea coast city of Odesa. Like others I spoke with, she asked we not use her full name for fear of retaliation by Russian authorities. Kherson had a population of 290,000. Some 40% of residents have left since the Russian takeover, according to the former mayor. Because Kherson fell quickly, Russian troops did not destroy it, as they did to Mariupol.

In recent weeks, Russian soldiers have sealed off the area of Kherson they occupy, worsening food and medicine shortages. Until that happened, a woman, who asked that we only use her first initial, S, had been shuttling from her home in Kherson to bring in medicine from the nearby city of Mykolaiv. S, who's in her early 40s and the mother of three, says some Russian soldiers she encounters are polite, but others, especially from Ukraine's eastern separatist regions, terrify her.

S: (Interpreter) They swear a lot. They look like they are under the influence of drugs. When they thought I got too close to a bus at a checkpoint, they fired an automatic rifle in front of my car. I got out of the car, and one soldier pointed the machine gun literally near my stomach. It was terrible, very scary.

LANGFITT: A man who asked we only use his first initial, A, has also run medicine in and out of the Kherson region and taken out people who want to leave. A says some Russian occupying soldiers try to present themselves as helpful.

A: (Through interpreter) The Russians give people what they call Russian humanitarian aid, which is really things they've previously looted from our supermarket.

LANGFITT: S says she believes the Russians then use this for propaganda purposes.

S: (Through interpreter) Some people come to them because they have nothing to eat. The Russians record this. As one person gives the aid, other Russians write down the passport info of those who receive it. They make videos. I've seen it.

LANGFITT: In addition, S says, some soldiers tell her she can only rely on Russia for security in this war.

S: (Through interpreter) One soldier said, only Russia will help you - only us. We will do better. I said, it used to be very nice until you came here. And he was like, no, you are wrong. Everything will be fine. Only we will help you. I said, do you understand that if everything was great, people wouldn't run away from their homes? Do you see how many people want to flee the city? He looked at me and said, move, fast.

LANGFITT: S says the medicine runs in and out of Kherson have been harrowing.

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LANGFITT: To avoid the fighting, she drives down narrow dirt tracks through the forest. The branches of trees slap the sides of a red hatchback, as you can hear in this video shot. S says she carefully follows the tire tracks of previous vehicles to avoid setting off landmines. A's medicine and evacuation runs are similarly terrifying.

A: (Through interpreter) During every single trip, we come under mortar fire. We spend the night in Russian territory, in a field with children and women. And the journey, which previously took me 140 miles in 4 hours, now takes two and a half days and 470 miles.

LANGFITT: Last week, a Russian soldier allegedly shot and killed a fellow driver who was trying to evacuate people, according to local news sources. A estimates that he and other drivers with whom he works have brought out 100 people from Kherson, delivered two tons of food and 440 pounds of medicine. He says the waiting list of those trying to leave runs to 15,000. S says that in her exchanges at checkpoints, she's tired of Russian soldiers telling her how they're making Kherson better.

A: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: "They said it's a liberation. A liberation from what?" she says. "The only thing they bring here is pain, tears and fear."

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Odesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVEY LITT SONG, "GAELIC (MTS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.