Published March 11, 2014
KHERSON, Ukraine – Ukrainians in the Kherson province just north of Crimea say Russian operatives have moved into the territory, an incursion which, if true, could show Vladimir Putin has more than just the Black Sea peninsula in his sights.
Residents of the village of Chonhar, in the Kherson region of Ukraine, say Russian troops showed up last week in armored personnel carriers, prompting the dispatch of Ukrainian troops and a standoff. The suspected Russian troops pulled back and established a checkpoint on a major road leading north from the Crimean capital of Simferopol.
"Local residents confronted the men and asked them who they were, but they refused to answer. We immediately suspected that they were from the Russian Armed Forces," a Chonhar resident who asked that only his first name, Anatoly, be used, told FoxNews.com.
Several locals reported dozens of men wearing camouflage fatigues riding armored personnel carriers crossed over Crimea’s border to Kherson region, where they established a base along the Kharkiv-Simferopol highway on the Kherson region’s side of the border. The website Mashable reported Sunday that Russians may have planted land mines near Chonhar. That account included several photos of a purported Russian checkpoint, and one set up by Ukrainians some 15 miles north.
Ukrainian News also reported on Saturday that Chonhar residents said Russians had placed land mines near the town of 1,500. Local residents told the newspaper area residents responded by planting Ukrainian flags on their houses as a sign of protest.
Parents in Chonhar kept their children home from school last week as the standoff played out, Anatoly said. Villagers hung Ukrainian flags outside their homes and asked Kherson officials to set up a Ukrainian checkpoint to defend local residents. On Saturday, several hundred villagers banded together to block the road.
Most residents of the Kherson province are Russian speakers, with Ukrainian Surzhik (a mix of Russian and Ukrainian) spoken in rural areas. Yet 76 percent identify themselves as Ukrainians and 20 percent consider themselves Russian, according to government statistics.
Both Ukrainians and Russians say they fear a war breaking out with Russia. Yuri Odarchenko, Kherson's new governor, told FoxNews.com that Ukrainian forces are in control of the situation.
“Army checkpoints are operating on all land routes connecting Kherson region with the Crimean peninsula. They have been put there to provide security for residents of the region and the Ukrainian state,” Odarchenko said.
But those assurances have not allayed the fears of Kherson residents that the invasion under way in neighboring Crimea is widening. It is unclear what percentage of the Kherson region’s 1.1 million residents support the Kremlin’s move on Crimea, but those who talked to FoxNews.com were adamant that they neither want to fight Russia nor be absorbed into the Russian Federation.
There have been no separatist-driven conflicts in Kherson since Ukraine became independent in 1991, although Kiev’s move to make Ukrainian the official national language was contested in the region.
Residents of the province’s capital, Kherson, about 150 miles northwest of Chonhar, say they feel an artificial conflict has been foisted upon them, according to Valetntyna Krytsak, an accountant who traveled to Kiev to take part in the protests that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
She said the pro-Russian Ukrainian Choice organization operating under Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian ally of Putin, has been stirring up trouble in the city with an advertising campaign designed to pit supporters and foes of Russia's annexation against one another.
“On the one hand, people see Russia conducting the illegal annexation of Crimea, which threatens Ukraine's sovereignty,” Krytsak said. “On the other, they don’t want to wind up citizens of government where radical and nationalist groups are in ascendency, the scenario currently promoted by Russian-language television channels from Moscow.”