KYIV, Ukraine – Russian occupation authorities are preparing to evacuate civilians from territory that Russia controls in southern Ukraine before a potential counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday.
Ukraine is widely expected to launch a counteroffensive in the coming weeks to recapture territory from Russian forces, aided by an influx of sophisticated weapons from its Western allies.
Although Ukrainian authorities have said the precise location of that push remains a closely guarded secret, military analysts and some Ukrainian officials have said it could focus on the south of the country.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said Russian authorities were encouraging Ukrainian citizens in occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions of southern Ukraine to get Russian passports and then move south to the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia has controlled Crimea since it seized it illegally in 2014, and its military has held parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces since last year.
Moscow claims to have annexed all three regions, a move that has been widely condemned as illegal.
“The Russian occupiers intensified preparations for the evacuation of the local population in the temporarily occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson,” the General Staff said in its morning update.
In the cities of Melitopol and Skadovsk in the Zaporizhzhia region, it said, the occupation authorities conducted a survey about possible evacuation and checked that residents had Russian identity documents.
“The invaders are spreading information that the forced evacuation of the civilian population will begin at the end of April,” the General Staff update said.
Although Moscow has occupied all of Crimea, it only has partial control of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.