ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Last month a message was smuggled out to friends from 10 Ukrainian detainees in Russian-occupied territory. The men, among hundreds of other civilian prisoners missing for weeks since the Russian withdrawal from the city of Kherson, said they were alive but in dire need of help.
“They asked us to contact their relatives and tell the media that they are alive,” said Andriy, a former detainee and friend of some of the detainees, who, like others interviewed for this article, gave only his first name for security reasons. “They are being tortured and held without any legal basis.”
The retreat of Russian forces from whole swaths of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine last fall raised hopes for many Ukrainians that their detained relatives would be freed and that the country’s forces would build on that momentum and swiftly recapture more territory in the region.
But the Russian retreat proved to be orderly to the point that even prisoners were evacuated, and Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south has largely halted as heavy fighting has been concentrated on the eastern front.
Yet, for families living in the occupied areas, or who have relatives detained there, a further Ukrainian counteroffensive could not come soon enough, even if it brings added risks.
Some people interviewed at a border crossing near the city of Zaporizhzhia — the only entry point for civilians passing from Russian-held southern Ukraine into Ukrainian-held territory — said they were fleeing heavy bombardment but hoped for a swift victory for Ukraine. Families of detainees being held by the Russians were both terrified for their safety and desperate to see them rescued.
Ukrainians arriving at a registration center in cars plastered with mud last month described an increasingly desperate situation in the occupied areas, with frequent shelling, loud explosions at night from long-range Ukrainian strikes, and life on a war footing with power outages and shortages of medicine.
“It is impossible to live there,” said Lyubov, 81, who was waiting at the registration center in Zaporizhzhia with her daughter for transport to the capital, Kyiv. Her apartment in the city of Mariupol had been destroyed, she said, and there was little health care.
A family arrived from Nova Kakhovka, a town on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, north of Kherson city, that they said had been half destroyed by artillery fire from both sides. “It was flying over our heads,” said Oleh, 60.
There is little question that the Ukrainian military would like to drive deeper into Russian-held territory in the south and on toward Crimea if it could, and pressure is building to begin such a drive.
Military analysts generally agree that while Ukraine is holding in a defensive position for now, a renewed southern offensive to cut Russia’s supply and communications routes into Crimea is its next important strategic objective.
“I have always said that Zaporizhzhia is the most strategic direction. It is the Zaporizhzhia direction that can turn the tide of the war,” said Col. Roman Kostenko, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and a former commander in a Ukrainian special operations force, Alpha.
An offensive south from Zaporizhzhia toward the Russian-held cities of Melitopol and Berdyansk would split Russian forces and undermine their hold on Crimea, he said. But he cautioned that he did not expect any advance until the spring, and even then only if Ukraine received additional assistance from the West in modern tanks, armored fighting vehicles and guns, some of which is now being promised.
Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said that Ukrainian strikes on Melitopol, a logistics hub, and on the Kerch Strait bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia had already shown Russian vulnerabilities in Crimea.
“If the two main lines of communication are already either damaged or can be disrupted, Crimea starts to look more and more like a trap,” General Hodges said in a recent interview on Twitter Spaces with the Mriya Report, a popular pro-Ukraine open source forum.
But a southern offensive will be more difficult even than the counteroffensives this fall in the northeast and the south, both military analysts warned. And residents traveling out of the region said the number of Russian troops in southern Ukraine had increased noticeably in recent weeks with the arrival of troops that retreated from western Kherson joining others coming from the Russian mainland. Russian forces have been building defensive positions deeper back from the front lines in recent weeks, Ukrainian and American officials have said.
For the Ukrainian civilians, the journey out was difficult as well, hampered by long delays and security checks at Russian checkpoints. A bridge near the crossing point had been destroyed in the fighting, forcing volunteers from the local fire department to tow cars through deep mud along an alternative route.
It took Lyudmila, 49, and a friend two days to escape from the occupied part of the Kherson region, where they had been visiting her parents, she said. Her parents wanted to leave but were not up to the difficult journey, she said.
The two women spent a night in the city of Melitopol, where they heard Ukrainian strikes landing nearby. “It was loud; it was close,” she said.
The Russian troops were digging new fortification lines, setting up concrete barriers and laying mines, several civilians said, but there were also signs that they were not confident of their situation.
“I have the impression they don’t know what they are doing,” Lyuba, 69, a retired businesswoman, said of the Russian soldiers. “Maybe because I rarely see them sober, it’s impossible to talk to them.”
A school where Russian soldiers were lodged near her home in the Kherson region had been hit in an artillery strike that killed scores of them, she said. And when she reprimanded a Ukrainian acquaintance for befriending a group of Russian soldiers, he told her the soldiers had said that they wanted to surrender to the Ukrainian army when it reached the town.
Families of two of the detainees who smuggled their message out spoke to The New York Times to plead for action to save their relatives. The Russians probably took the detainees with them to use as human shields or hostages for exchange, they said.
“I cannot think or feel anything because it is such a mess,” said Viktoriya Nesterenko, 53, whose son, Vitaliy Cherkashyn, is one of the 10 detainees.
The men were being held in the town of Novotroitske in the Russian-held part of the Kherson region, she said. She worried about the Ukrainian artillery strikes, especially when she heard there was a strike on the town where they are being held.
“I only hope they are in some kind of basement cell.”
She called for the men to be included in a prisoner exchange, but complained that the Ukrainian government was focused on the release of military prisoners of war and paid little heed to the plight of civilians.
“I don’t know what to do but we must not be silent,” she said.
“I am really hoping they will have to retreat,” said Anna Trubych, 24, whose boyfriend, Vladyslav Andryushchenko, 27, is another of the 10 detainees. With the message she received a photo. “He changed a lot,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Oleksandr Chubko and Kateryna Lachina contributed reporting.