They were shot, blown up, hanged and poisoned – an array of methods that reflects the determination of Ukrainian commandos and saboteurs often operating deep inside enemy-controlled territory. The unpredictability of the attacks is meant to terrify anyone who might agree to serve in the puppet governments Russia has created for the purpose of holding sham referendums and ultimately annexing occupied lands.
On Tuesday, the bloody roll continued.
Artem Bardin, the military commander of Berdyansk, a port city on the Sea of Azov that Russia seized early in the war, was seriously injured when a car exploded near the city’s administration building, according to the Russian news agency Tass, which described the incident as a “terrorist act”.
Bardin’s legs were ripped off and he suffered major blood loss, but he was alive, Vladimir Rogov, a Ukrainian who works as a pro-Russian civil servant, told Tass. “Doctors continue to fight for his life,” Rogov said.
Earlier reports that Bardin had died could not be independently confirmed, but there was no doubt that he would not return to official duties in the occupied city anytime soon.
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As Ukrainian soldiers advance in the south and east of the country in an attempt to reclaim occupied territories, Ukrainian officials say shadowy operations behind the lines are undermining, if not outright thwarting, Moscow’s plans to seize political control, and above all to stage the sham referendums that the Kremlin hoped to use to justify annexation.
In addition to targeted assassinations, the Ukrainians carried out attacks on Russian ammunition depots and other crucial military installations and assets in occupied Crimea.
A Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said that one of Ukraine’s special services was involved in the attack on Bardin, although he could not specify what agency.
“According to my understanding, everything that is done to destroy the leaders of the invaders and traitors is done by our special services,” the official said. “You can say that three organizations are involved in this kind of business: the special operations forces, the main intelligence service [of the military] and a special unit of the SBU”, Ukraine’s main internal security service.
Russian officials have also blamed Ukrainian special services for the car bombing that killed Daria Dugina, a right-wing nationalist Russian television commentator and the daughter of far-right Orthodox Christian ideologue Alexander Dugin, a staunch supporter of war. Ukraine has categorically denied any involvement in his murder near Moscow.
The assassination campaign, while acclaimed by many Ukrainians, nevertheless raises legal and ethical questions about extrajudicial executions and potential war crimes, especially when the targets are political actors or civilians and not combatants on the battlefield or other military. And these issues cannot simply be brushed aside by pointing out the illegality of the Russian invasion.
The Geneva Conventions, referring to “persons taking no active part in hostilities”, expressly prohibit “outrages upon life and person, in particular murder of any kind”, as well as “the pronouncement of sentences and the execution of executions without precondition”. judgment rendered by a regularly constituted court”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s top advisers, told the Washington Post that the attacks in the occupied territories are proof of a “powerful partisan and active protest movement” which shows that “Moscow is absolutely incapable to control” the areas and that “no one here was expecting…flowers in hand” to greet the Russian forces.
As a result, Podolyak said, “all the scenarios concocted in the Kremlin, including sham referendums, remain only on paper.” He said Moscow struggled to recruit from the local population for pro-Russian administrations and Russian officials refused to travel to Ukraine because of the risk of ending up on a target list.
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“The risks and the consequences are extreme – and they understand that very well,” Podolyak said.
In August alone, there were nine such attacks.
In Berdyansk, deputy traffic police chief Aleksandr Kolesnikov died after a bomb explosion, which local authorities blamed on the “Kyiv regime”.
In Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, the head of the occupation administration, was hospitalized after being poisoned, apparently by a personal chef. His condition could not be learned. And another Kherson occupation official, Vitaliy Gura, was killed in early August in the town of Nova Kakhovka.
It is far from certain that all these successes are the work of the Ukrainian special services. However, Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based defense consultancy, said he had seen “no evidence, even a shred of evidence, or even a rumour” that the attacks were the result. of infighting in the pro- Russian administrations.
Muzyka, however, said he did not know whether Ukrainian special services were acting alone or with the help of local supporters, but he said the victims were clearly not chosen at random.
“Whoever organizes the attacks, they try to focus on the big fish,” he said.
The operations were partly aimed at derailing Russian-organized referendums, Muzyka said, which in some areas were tentatively scheduled to take place this month. Russia held a similar referendum in Crimea in 2014 before annexing the territory in violation of international law.
“I think it’s fair to say that Kyiv is very concerned about these referendums,” Muzyka said. Ukrainian officials “would do everything possible to prevent them from happening”.
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In May, Andrei Shevchik, the Russian-appointed head of Enerhodar, the nearest town to Ukraine’s giant Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was the target of a bomb attack. This strike was confirmed by Dmytro Orlov, the legitimate mayor, who was overthrown by the Russian invaders and is exiled from his city.
Now the attacks on pro-Kremlin officials are taking place as Ukrainian forces wage what appears to be a major offensive to drive Russian forces out of Kherson.
On Monday, Kirill Stremousov, a senior official in the Moscow-backed Kherson administration, said “a pause has been taken” in holding the referendum in his region due to the security situation. Other Russian-aligned officials attempted to backtrack on that statement, but it was far from clear that Russian forces would control the territory long enough to stage the fake vote.
In late August, Podolyak tweeted a still from Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds,” which chronicles the exploits of a fictional American unit killing German soldiers behind enemy lines during World War II.
“In Kherson it is said that Russian officers … have recently avoided night walks,” he wrote. “As soon as the city goes to sleep, the supporters wake up. … We wish a ‘good night’ to all employees. ”