Ukrainian villages grapple with the effects of Russia's sham referendum Villagers on the Ukrainian side say it's already hard to stay in touch with friends and family across the front lines. They fear it will get worse.

On the edge of Russia's illegal annexation, Ukrainians grapple with uncertainty

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Vladimir Putin says he's annexing four more regions of Ukraine. Yesterday's announcement followed votes in the regions that were largely dismissed by the international community as shams. President Biden said yesterday that Putin, quote, "can't seize his neighbor's territory and get away with it." As NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports, the annexation, even if it's brief, will likely have real implications for Ukrainians on the front lines who are staring down Russian forces.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Twenty-eight-year-old Andreii Boyarvskii stands outside a mini-mart on the edge of the small village of Tariivke. He flips through his phone. It's full of videos of explosions in his hometown, Orikhiv, just a few miles down the road. The videos are mostly taken from his front yard.

Right now, is it just like this every day?

ANDREII BOYARVSKII: Yeah.

LONSDORF: Yep. Every day, he says. Orikhiv is right on the southern front line. It's still under Ukrainian control, but the areas just beyond it are controlled by Russia. His sister and her family are in one of those areas under Russian occupation.

BOYARVSKII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: He says it's hard to contact her. Cellphone signals are often jammed. The internet is down. But the other day, she managed to text him.

BOYARVSKII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: Russian soldiers had come to her home with guns and intimidated her into voting yes in the referendum. Now with the annexation, he thinks it'll be even harder for them to stay in touch.

As we talk, another car pulls over, and five people pile out. A woman pops the trunk and prepares a small picnic of sorts - bread and canned meats, tomatoes, cucumbers. Forty-eight-year-old Hanadee Kechan says they're coming from Orikhiv. He says they had to pull over here to calm down, to stop shaking. There was so much shelling, he says.

HANADEE KECHAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: He tells me this is a group of neighbors. They all left Orikhiv months ago but go back sometimes. Hanadee's mom is still there, so he visits.

KECHAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: He's heard the roads to Orikhiv might close even though it's in Ukrainian hands at the moment. The front line is fluid, and he says he's worried this might be the last time that they can go back home.

About a hundred miles west is the town of Zelenodolsk. It's right near the edge of the Kherson region, which is nearly completely occupied by Russia. A makeshift humanitarian aid center has been set up in town to hand out supplies to residents. Sixty-six-year-old Mikola Visylavych hops off his bike. He's here to pick up a box of food. When I ask him about the annexation, that Russia is now claiming his neighbors in Kherson are Russian, he scoffs.

MIKOLA VISYLAVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: "Russia has been evil to us," he says. "This won't be a long-term thing. The Ukrainian army will take it all back." What about Crimea, I ask. That was annexed in 2014, and it still is.

VISYLAVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: "This time is different," he says. He's a hundred percent sure Ukrainians are ready for the fight.

At a bakery down the street, Lubov Samovalovah is drinking coffee and eating a slice of cake with a friend. Lubov is from a small village that was occupied in the beginning of the war and was recently liberated by Ukraine.

LUBOV SAMOVALOVAH: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She says she feels like she's in a dream, knowing her village is free. She wants to go back soon if she can. She tells me her son managed to leave Kherson City a few weeks ago. That was the first major city to fall to Russia, and it's still occupied.

SAMOVALOVAH: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She says her son told her that the city is dying. Literally, she says, but also in spirit.

There is a lot of hope here in Zelenodolsk that Ukraine will win Kherson back. The Ukrainian army says it's been making slow, but steady, gains in the region. And there is a way, even from here, to see evidence of that. Forty-five-year-old Nickolai Stadnick says that in the early months of the war, people fled Kherson by bike. And they'd leave them there in Zelenodolsk before continuing on.

NICKOLAI STADNICK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: So Nikolai started collecting them all - hundreds of them - and putting them in a storage area to keep them safe. But recently...

STADNICK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: He says as places have been liberated, people have returned to Zelenodolsk to get the bikes they left. He sees this as a sign that the annexation won't last.

STADNICK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: And when Ukraine wins back Kherson, he says, he'll make sure that everyone's bike is waiting for them to take them home. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Zelenodolsk, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "THE HEROIC WEATHER - CONDITIONS OF THE UNIVERSE, PART 1: A VEILED MIST")

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