LVIV, Ukraine — The mayor of Melitopol is the kind of person Russian soldiers might have believed would welcome them with open arms and flowers.
Ivan Fyodorov, as his name suggests, is an ethnic Russian in a town in southern Ukraine where Russian is widely spoken and ties to Russia run deep.
On Friday night, Mr. Fyodorov had a bag thrown over his head and was dragged out of a government office building by armed Russian soldiers, according to Ukrainian officials. A video filmed in Melitopol’s Victory Square appears to show a person being escorted out of a government building by soldiers. The Times cannot verify the identity of the people in the video.
Ever since Russian forces captured his town in the early days of the war, he encouraged resistance, earning him public support and the ire of the occupying army.
On Saturday, hundreds of its residents took to the streets in outrage and defiance, despite the presence of troops on their streets.
“Fire the mayor!” they shouted, said witnesses and showed videos. “Free the mayor!”
But almost as soon as people gathered, the Russians decided to shut them down, arresting a woman they believed had organized the protest, according to two witnesses and the woman’s Facebook account.
The episode is part of what Ukrainian officials say is an increasingly brutal pattern of intimidation and repression. It also illustrates a problem that Russia is likely to face even if it manages to subjugate towns and villages: in at least some of the few towns and villages that Russia has managed to seize – mainly in the south and is – they face popular unrest and revolt.
For anyone who believed in the Kremlin propaganda that Russia was on a mission to save Ukraine from drug-addicted neo-Nazis, Melitopol was the kind of town, led by the kind of mayor, that should have viewed Russian troops as liberators.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the kidnapping of the mayor demonstrated the lie underlying the Russian invasion.
“For years they lied to each other saying that the Ukrainians were supposedly waiting for Russia to come,” he said. “They did not find collaborators who would hand over the city and power to the invaders.”
And he sought to tap into public rage in two videotaped speeches broadcast on Saturday.
“The whole country saw that Melitopol did not surrender to the invaders,” he said. “Like Kherson, Berdyansk and other cities where Russian troops managed to enter did not – temporarily manage to enter. And that won’t change by pressuring mayors or kidnapping mayors. »
After people took to the streets, he praised their courage and suggested that the war lacked popular support among Russians.
“Do you hear him, Moscow?” He asked. “If 2,000 people demonstrate against the occupation in Melitopol, how many people should be in Moscow against the war?
Mr Zelelnsky said he raised the mayor’s fate in calls with German and French leaders.
“We expect them, world leaders, to show how they can influence the situation,” he said. “How they can do a simple thing – release a person, a person who represents the whole community of Melitopol, Ukrainians who do not give up.
Melitopol is a short distance from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The city came under fierce assault on the first day of the war, February 24, and Russian soldiers entered a few days later. As the city fell, Mr. Fyodorov remained defiant.
“We are not cooperating with the Russians in any way,” he said.
As the resistance has grown more brazen, Russian tactics have grown more brutal, according to the Ukrainian government and witnesses. The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Friday that Russian soldiers were committing robberies, taking hostages and executing civilians. Reports of executions and hostage-taking could not be independently verified, but there were numerous accounts, often videotaped, of Russian soldiers looting shops and homes.
Mr Zelensky said the kidnapping of the mayor was part of a wider change in tactics. “They have moved to a new stage of terror, when they are trying to physically eliminate representatives of legitimate local Ukrainian authorities,” he said.
Last weekend, people waving the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag took to the streets of Melitopol and other occupied towns.
For the most part, Russian soldiers stood aside, even as protesters commandeered a Russian armored vehicle in a city and drove it through the streets.
Mr. Fyodorov encouraged the demonstration. In his last Facebook post, he thanked the business leaders who were helping the community at the time of the conflicts. “Together we will overcome everything!” he wrote.
His whereabouts are currently unknown.
Muyi Xiao and Dmitri Khavin contributed report.