Ukrainian forces have prepared the ground for a major counter-offensive which they hope will push the Russian occupiers out of Kherson in the south, opening the way to Crimea.
Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian artillery teams, special forces and partisans have laid the groundwork by destroying key Russian hubs, attacking rail lines and vital bridges.
Troops and supplies have been massed along the southern front line which connects the towns of Mykolayiv and Kherson.
The long-awaited counter-offensive may have already begun, according to the American think tank Institute for the Study of War. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his forces are progressing “step by step” towards the total liberation of Kherson.
Former Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said Newsweek that the Ukrainian fighters “must move [Russian forces] out of there as soon as possible”; while Ukrainian security expert Alexander Khara suggests the attack “has an excellent chance of success”.
Here’s a look at Ukraine’s major counteroffensive…
Hanna Shelest, director of the security studies program at Ukraine’s foreign and security policy think tank Prism, said Newsweek that Kherson is a logical target for Ukraine’s push.
“All territories are important,” Shelest said from the southern port city of Odessa. “We don’t prioritize one way or another, it’s just where we can do it right now.”
The northern front line, near Kharkiv, runs close to the Ukrainian-Russian border, providing Russian forces with good supply networks. To the east, Russia deployed troops and weapons to the pockmarked battlefields of Donbass, winning limited victories.
But in the south, Russian forces have made no progress since the first weeks of the invasion. Supply lines from Crimea are stretched, their forces weakened by the demands of Donbass, and the occupying authorities fail to quell the simmering insurgency.
Newly acquired Western long-range artillery systems – particularly American-made HIMARS and their high-precision ammunition with a range of around 50 miles – enabled the Ukrainians to turn the screw, starving the occupants of ammunition, fuel and other supplies. necessary to hold their position.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said his forces have destroyed 50 Russian ammunition and fuel depots with HIMARS in recent weeks. The Ukrainians also destroyed three bridges over the Inhulets River, which flows south of the city of Kherson.
On Tuesday evening, Ukrainian forces struck the Antonivskiy Bridge more than a dozen times, severely hollowing out the strategic structure and forcing its closure by occupying Russian authorities.
The damaged bridges, Shelest said ahead of Tuesday’s strikes, are a warning to the Russians. “It really depends on those bridges,” she explained. “The Ukrainians managed not to completely destroy the bridges, but to demonstrate that we can do it perfectly… It has a psychological effect.”
Alexander Khara, former Ukrainian government security adviser, said Newsweek the state of Russian morale in the south means that a counter-offensive “has an excellent chance of success”.
“The Russians are suffering from poor morale, logistical problems and the horror of HIMARS,” he said.
Partisan activity is also undermining Russian morale in the south. High-ranking collaborators were killed and Russian troops were regularly attacked.
“It’s important,” Shelest said of the strength of the local resistance. “That’s what makes it very different from what we had in Donbass in 2014.”
Why Kherson Really Matters
The city of Kherson, with a pre-invasion population of nearly 300,000, will be the main target of the next Ukrainian push. Only 15 miles from the front, Ukrainian success here would open the door to the rest of the region.
A broader victory in the south offers Ukraine multiple strategic gains.
Pushing Russian forces further east, beyond Kherson, will push them even further away from the key port city of Odessa and the commercial ships that operate there.
“Odessa is our gateway to the world,” Ukrainian security expert Khara said. “Odessa’s importance is felt far beyond Ukraine. With its blockade by Russia, millions of people around the world are starving.”
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said it was too dangerous to leave Kherson in Russian hands.
“As long as Russia holds Kherson, it will always threaten Mykolaiv,” Zagorodnyuk said. “And while that’s happening, Odessa is in danger. The Russians have always wanted and still want to take the whole Black Sea coast, so we need to get them out of there as soon as possible.”
Reclaiming the south would also mean regaining access to the region’s well-developed agricultural and industrial industries; although both were probably badly damaged.
While Russia controls the south, Moscow has a land bridge from the Crimean peninsula to Russia across occupied Donbass. A Ukrainian seizure from the south would derail this so-called “Novorossiya strategy”.
“Russia needs these territories to secure a land bridge to Crimea and an uninterrupted water supply to the peninsula,” Khara said. Occupation forces are also seeking to redirect the electricity supply from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant along the Dnieper River.
“Even if they only take the city of Kherson, it will be a blow to the Russians,” Zagorodnyuk said. “If they take the whole region, it will cut Crimea off from the rest of the troops.”
The end game
Few Ukrainians think a ceasefire or a peace deal with Russia is trustworthy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear this week that the Kremlin’s war aims extend far beyond Donbass. Letting Moscow dictate the end of this round of fighting, many Ukrainians say, will only set the stage for the next war.
“We are under no illusions that this is not the last war between Russia and Ukraine,” Khara said. “In the meantime, we will be held back by the heavy Russian military presence in our plans to pressure Russia and turn to ‘politics by other means’ if the diplomatic resolution of the Crimean issue fails.”
Defeating the Russians in the south will be another blow to Putin’s imperial ambitions.
“Another achievement is crucial for the morale of Ukrainians and our partners, who must be encouraged in their belief that Ukraine will win,” Khara said.
“We will be able to relocate some resources to the east. It could also completely discourage [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko of possible involvement in Russia’s war effort beyond his sideline support.”
The Ukrainian government believes it has a moral imperative to free those currently living under Russian occupation.
But Moscow is trying to establish control over the occupied territories. This week, the senior Russian official in Kherson said a regional referendum on joining the Russian Federation – a rigged vote to formalize Moscow’s control – would take place regardless of the “intimidation” of Kyiv and its forces.
It is expected that the occupation authorities in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia will organize such bogus polls on or around 9/11. Newsweek contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.
Reznikov said last week: “I hope the Ukrainians stay at home that day. But let’s cross our fingers. Who knows, the city will probably be liberated by then.”
Meanwhile, the occupiers are issuing Russian passports, installing Russian local government officials, disconnecting Ukrainian service providers and make anyone disappear suspected of resistance.
“We have more and more evidence,” Shelest said of ongoing Russian abuses behind the lines. Ukrainians advancing south may encounter horrors similar to those they encountered north of Kyiv in places like Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel.
“Besides the military calculations, there is a human one,” Khara said.
Any success will have a high cost. The Russians, although weakened, have been preparing for months.
“Russia still has plenty of long-range firepower equipment,” Zagorodnyuk said. “They reinforced Kherson with armored defense lines. They brought two cement factories to town to make armored concrete blocks.”
“Obviously the loss of personnel is a major risk for Ukraine, and therefore any measures must be carefully planned,” he said. “Russia is exhausting its capabilities but remains very dangerous.”