KYIV, Ukraine — With the city of Kherson shaping up to be the site of the next major battle in Ukraine, occupying forces there raised the pressure on residents Wednesday to abandon their homes and leave for Russia, warning that if they stayed they would be considered hostile and treated accordingly.
“We live, like, in a dystopian movie here,” one resident of Kherson, Katerina, 38, said by telephone, asking that her full name not be used for her safety.
As windows rattled from nearby explosions, pharmacy shelves emptied and prices skyrocketed for what few provisions were to be had, Katerina described widespread looting and an increasingly threatening atmosphere.
“People are trying to get rid of Russian money as soon as possible,” she said.
To make the warning to those who refuse to leave unmistakable, a top Russian proxy official in Kherson released a harrowing video purporting to show a 17-year-old boy being interrogated after he was accused of providing information to the Ukrainian military.
Kherson was the first city to fall after Russia invaded in February, and it is now caught between Russian forces and the Ukrainian soldiers intent on retaking it. A hydroelectric dam outside the city may prove to be a major point of contention since it is the last major crossing over the Dnipro River available to Russian forces.
If Ukraine retakes the dam, thousands of soldiers may be left with no way to retreat.
While the Russians were pressuring residents of Kherson to flee, the Ukrainian government was offering a different message to the millions of Ukrainians who went abroad at the advent of the war, urging them not to come home.
With winter coming and critical energy plants badly damaged by Russian aerial attacks, a senior government official issued a plea this week to the estimated seven million Ukrainians who had left for neighboring countries like Poland.
“I will ask you not to return — we have to survive the winter,” the official, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, said on Ukrainian television. “If there is an opportunity, stay and spend the winter abroad for the time being.”
As the situation has stabilized in Kyiv, the capital — initially a focus of the Russian assault — many Ukrainians whose homes are not in Russian-occupied areas or places devastated by attacks have faced a choice about whether to return.
Moscow’s recent decision to begin targeting electric and heating plants has complicated that calculation. A barrage of missiles starting Oct. 10 has knocked out at least 30 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The state power company has imposed energy restrictions in a number of regions, including Kyiv, while it tries to restore services. And last week, officials urged Ukrainians to curb their electricity use by avoiding using household appliances like electric kettles and microwaves to ease the pressure on the energy grid while repairs are made.
Unreliable phone and internet services have made it exceedingly difficult to get information about what is happening in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine like Kherson, but snippets emerging from the city on Wednesday via photos and video, as well as from Ukrainian officials and activists, suggest dangerous conditions for the thousands believed to still be there.
The interrogation video released by the Russian proxy official in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, showed a stricken-looking young man in a gray hoodie being closely questioned in a drab, bare-bones room. The video’s authenticity could not be independently confirmed.
And in a twist that lent an air of absurdity to the conflict, Mr. Stremousov in a post on the Telegram messaging app denounced Ukrainians who refused to leave Kherson as “waiters,” repurposing the derisive term Ukrainians use for citizens suspected of relishing the prospect of a Russian takeover.
Debate continued among those trying to discern from afar the Russian military’s plans in Kherson.
Some military analysts said it appeared that the Russians were preparing to leave the city and fall back to the east bank of the Dnipro River, where they are said to be fortifying their position. But there was no indication of a mass flight of Russian soldiers. In September, President Vladimir V. Putin overruled Russian commanders who wanted to withdraw across the river, U.S. officials have said.
But Ukraine says it believes Russian forces still plan to fight.
“The Russians are replenishing, strengthening their grouping there,” Oleksiy Arestovych, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said in an online video late Tuesday. “It means that nobody is preparing to withdraw. On the contrary, the heaviest of battles is going to take place for Kherson.”
As Ukrainian forces battled to advance, the hydroelectric dam outside Kherson has emerged as critical to the fight for the region. The Nova Kakhovka dam, which holds back a body of water the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is less than 50 miles northeast of Kherson.
Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said this week that if Kyiv takes the dam, Russian forces “will have to make a decision very quickly — either very, very quickly leave the city and get out, or risk ending up in the same situation that our units in Mariupol found themselves in earlier.”
He was referring to the bloody siege in that city during which encircled Ukrainian fighters held out for weeks before being forced to surrender.
Aside from its military value, the dam is also a critical piece of infrastructure. Its reservoir is crucial to the operations of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, about 100 miles upriver, because it provides water for cooling.
As its hold on Ukrainian territory has grown more tenuous, Moscow has accused Ukraine of planning to destroy the dam, a claim that Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed. Kyiv, asking why it would flood its own land, suggested that Moscow might be preparing a “false flag” operation to blow up the dam.
And this week, Russian officials have claimed without evidence that Ukraine is planning to detonate a “dirty bomb” — which uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material — on its own territory, again raising concern in the West about a false-flag attack. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin himself made the claim publicly for the first time.
Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Eric Nagourney from New York. Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting from London, Neil MacFarquhar from Paris and Carly Olson from New York.