Video of the protests showed people marching in Kherson’s main square despite the occasional volley of gunfire. It is unclear where the shots came from, but a small detachment of Russian soldiers guards the Regional Council building.
Protesters chanted “Ukrainia”, and the biggest cheer rang out when a young man waving Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag climbed onto a Russian troop carrier.
A man who attended the protests managed to send a video clip to CNN, saying in broken English: “People want to show that Kherson is Ukraine, and all the good people are going to this meeting, not afraid of Russian military”.
There was another protest in Kherson on Sunday. Videos from that event suggest he was smaller but no less determined. An elderly woman stared at the camera in a video and said softly, “Save our country! Let them all die, with Putin.”
The protests in Kherson over the weekend were the largest and the latest in a growing wave of clashes in the few Ukrainian towns of any size captured by Russian forces.
They may be a bad omen for Russian commanders already struggling to break Ukrainian military resistance. And, despite the risk, this civil disobedience is encouraged from above.
On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a Facebook post: “Everyone who can defend their city must keep fighting. Must it. Because if everyone leaves, who will it belong to?”
And, on Sunday, hundreds of people answered Zelensky’s call and took part in marches throughout the Kherson region, close to Russian-controlled Crimea.
In the town of Nova Kakhovka, a crowd cheered as an elderly woman waved a broom and dustpan in a welcome to Russian troops. Two men climbed a pedestal to hoist the Ukrainian flag in front of City Hall.
Video later emerged of smoke rising from the crowd amid the sound of gunfire. Ukraine’s Interfax news agency said five people were injured after Russian forces opened fire – apparently over protesters’ heads – and used stun grenades.
It seemed that almost every town in Kherson was out on Sunday. In Novooleksiika, hundreds of people sang the national anthem and shouted “Ukraine is above all” while marching on a rural road.
And in Kalanchak, which is closer to Crimea, hundreds of people sang the national anthem and shouted “Ukraine is above all else” as they walked down a rural road – with several generations of residents linked by national solidarity.
They then unfurled a huge Ukrainian flag and harangued masked and heavily armed Russian soldiers. The women shouted, “Get out of our land, we don’t need you!” Get out of our land!
Since the middle of last week, there have been protests against Russia, often involving a few dozen people, from Berdyansk on Ukraine’s southern coast to Konotop, hundreds of kilometers north between Kyiv and Kharkiv.
When the Russian army arrived in Konotop, a small crowd swarmed a Russian military vehicle, shouting abuse. One of them climbed on its hood and then fell as it drove away. In Berdiansk, a crowd sang the Ukrainian national anthem in front of the town hall, occupied last week by Russian troops. More daring civilians clashed with soldiers in a truck, who appeared bewildered.
Individual acts of defiance are going viral in a country where the internet and mobile communications remain largely intact, much to the surprise of most people. The images quickly spread via Telegram and Facebook – short, uneven clips where the raw courage of the protesters shines through.
These are all scattered examples, and they do not constitute organized resistance. But they are showing genuine defiance and opposition to the new order the Russian forces are trying to impose as they gradually take more territory.
The dilemma for the occupying force is finding local officials willing to work under their direction to maintain services in towns where food and medical supplies are in short supply. The Russians seem ill-prepared to set up local administrations.
So far, in most cases, Russian troops have kept a low profile in the face of civilian protests. They held on but did not react. But not always. In a town in the eastern Luhansk region, which is largely Russian-speaking, residents took to the streets of Novopskov on Friday.
“Get out of here! War and death pursue you,” they chanted.
They returned for more on Saturday, when Russian troops shot a man in the leg and fired volleys into the air to disperse a crowd approaching their position.
What is unclear is whether the Russians can both control the cities they begin to occupy and try to advance across this vast country. Russian forces are already experiencing supply problems, according to US officials. Crushing Ukrainian military resistance and subduing an emboldened population would be a tall order.