Accompanied by tanks, a group of journalists, including those from AFP, were able to reach this territory on the occasion of a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Here, the fighting was not fierce. Kremlin troops from neighboring Crimea, annexed in 2014, took the region and its namesake capital in early March, as Ukrainian forces focused on defending kyiv.
In the city, no visible destruction and few Russian flags. On the regional roads, there are a few charred military and armored vehicles.
The front is a few tens of kilometers to the north. We hear sporadically bursts of artillery fire or anti-aircraft defense resounding at a good distance.
Since the conquest of the region, the information filtering from Kherson is largely that distilled by the authorities put in place by Moscow.
Groups on Telegram have reported protests dispersed by the Russian military, protests that Russia and its allies are downplaying.
– Prudence –
During a visit to a trolleybus depot in Kherson, a driver, Alexander Loginov, 47, ventured to speak to AFP from the cabin of his vehicle.
“People are very cautious,” he said, noting that they are worried about “the instability, the closure of Ukrainian banks, the question (of payment) of wages”.
“Frankly, it’s just war”, continues the driver, pronouncing this word that Russia has banned, under penalty of fine or prison, when it comes to evoking its military offensive against Ukraine.
The new head of the municipality of Kherson appointed by Moscow, Alexander Kobets, says he is concentrating on two tasks: “that the population does not feel abandoned” and, of course, the attachment to Russia, an ambition also hammered by many many senior Russian officials.
By taking Kherson and Zaporijjia, a partially occupied neighboring region, the Kremlin constitutes a strategic land bridge, linking Russian territory to Crimea.
“Many (inhabitants) are in favor of belonging to Russia and not becoming a newly created (separatist) republic” like those in eastern Ukraine, says Alexander Kobets.
According to him, the pro-Ukrainian demonstrations were “limited”. The pro-Russian official also assures that everyone in the region “can express their opinion”.
If, in the city itself, the Russian army is discreet, in the countryside, checkpoints are regular and visible patrols near forests.
Kherson has largely emptied. The Ukrainian authorities estimate that 45% of the 300,000 inhabitants of the city have fled as well as around 20% of the population of the region, estimated before the offensive at one million people.
In the streets of the city, more than half of the shops and cafes that AFP could see were closed.
Economically, Russia is advancing its pawns. On Monday, the pro-Russian authorities officially introduced the ruble as a currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.
– Agricultural power –
With two million hectares of arable land, this region also constitutes a non-negligible part of the agricultural power of Ukraine.
If the fields that AFP was able to see did not suffer from the fighting, kyiv, on the other hand, accuses Russia of having looted the grain silos there, fueling the risk of a world food crisis, Ukraine being a major grain exporter.
“Mayor” Alexander Kobets has another interpretation of the facts. However, he recognizes that cereals, fruits or vegetables go to Russia, since the export port of Kherson via the Black Sea and the way to the rest of Ukraine are blocked.
“The trajectory of exports has changed, as the commercial seaport is blocked, shipments planned for export are stopped. And our farmers’ shipments are heading for Crimea,” he says.
“The roads have remained in good condition, there is no particular difficulty”, continues the manager.
In another town in the region, Skadovsk, a small seaside resort 100 kilometers south of Kherson, passers-by politely apologize when an AFP journalist wants to ask them about life under Russian control.
Only Vera Mironenko, a mother who came with two of her three children to the dolphinarium, agrees to make one or two confidences.
“Everyone lives on their savings, businesses are closed, I worked in a store, but I had to be fired,” she says, referring to “stratospheric prices” and the absence of drugs.
“We are patient while waiting for life to get better (…) whatever the power,” adds Vera, a bit fatalistic.