During World War II, the folks back home could read about the progress of the conflict in daily papers, listen to the voices of journalists in Europe or the Pacific coming to them over the radio in the evening, and visit the local movie theater for a glimpse of the action on the latest newsreel. Over the course of more than a decade in Vietnam, Americans got used to the bizarre nightly ritual of the official body counts, magazines loaded with searing photographs, and reporters bringing news footage showing a war that never seemed far from chaos. In both cases, the action reports the public was receiving were heavily filtered and optimistic, but they at least gave a sense of how things were moving.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most of the major media seems to be providing … not very much, really, especially when it comes to answering questions about the tactical or strategic progress of the war. Today’s New York Times contains a single news story on the invasion of Ukraine, and that one is more related to the sale of U.S. weapons than to any current action on the ground. There are actually more mentions of the war in the sports section, where Russia is both continuing to hold American basketball star Brittney Griner and preventing a Russian hockey player from moving to the U.S. CNN also features a single story about the invasion of Ukraine, one that focuses on volunteers, but to its credit, does describe the general situation in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s goals in the area. MSNBC also has a single Ukraine-related story, that one an interview with a former Zelenskyy advisor.
Anyone seeking an answer to “yes, but, what’s actually happening in Ukraine?” is forced back to the one place that it seems holds all answers these days: social media, where actual news has to be sifted from tens of thousands of propaganda accounts. At the start of the war, Twitter made a concerted effort to purge Russian bot accounts, but any dip in those accounts was purely temporary (India seems to be the current server location of choice). It’s debatable whether Russia even needs these one-note accounts, since more than half the U.S. right wing, as well as right-wing accounts from Brazil to Hungary, seems to be regularly “explaining” how Ukraine is corrupt, the war was started by Joe Biden, and they’re excited to announce that Russia is win-win-winning. Some of these accounts have tens of thousands of followers, all eager to sign on and give a big cheer for Vladimir Putin.
But it’s not just pro-Russian propaganda blurring the picture. This week, one of the most-followed pro-Ukrainian accounts was deleted after the account, which supposedly represented the on-line face of several volunteers serving on the front lines of the war, was definitively revealed as a fake. It certainly didn’t help that they posted a picture of their rifle that turned out to be an air soft gun. To be fair, numerous people have had serious concerns about this account for months (believe me, I have your emails on the subject), but the relentlessly upbeat, pro-Ukraine, victory-is-right-around-the-corner chatter from this account made it hard to resist for many people, especially among the sea of doom-and-gloom posts.
The same rules apply on social media as apply on any other source of news: Beware of finding any report that is too friendly to your own deeply held hopes.
Can Russia win the war in Ukraine? No. There’s no way for Russia to come out on top economically, militarily, or diplomatically. By any measure, Moscow is much weaker now than when this war began. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned his country into an international pariah, revealed the Russian military as an ugly parody of what many believed, derailed Russia’s chief source of revenue, permanently impoverished the Russian populace, and placed the nation in a position where it can not determine its own fate.
Putin cannot even determine when this war ends—not unless he’s willing to hand every inch of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, back to Kyiv. He has put his finger (and everything else) into a trap from which he can’t escape. Putin can declare victory tomorrow, and every day thereafter. No one will listen. This war ends when Ukraine says it ends.
Can Russia’s ongoing effort to simply crush Ukrainian cities and towns into rubble using artillery, then camp conscripts on the rubble be halted? The answer appears to be “not yet.”
All of this was a very long prelude to this question: So, what’s happening over around Kherson?
Well, what’s happening, and what’s been happening over the last two weeks, is that Ukraine has been very, very quiet about Kherson. Social media is a (sometimes … okay, rarely) wonderful thing, but Ukraine seems to have determined that, when attacking at a dozen points along an 80 kilometer front, having each thrust and parry immediately turned into a subject of detailed Facebook analysis and 80-post Twitter threads may not be a Good Thing. So they’ve been working hard to stop the flow of chatter from their forces. The last two weeks have seen few pictures of Ukrainian troops in the area and many fewer reports of detailed action in the midst of a declared “blackout.”
That doesn’t mean nothing has been going on there. Russian (and some Ukrainian) soldiers have continued to talk s#it on Telegram, making the usual claims that are 80% just intended to intimidate the other side. But on the ground reporters who generally confirm movements in the area, have been much more reluctant to mention actions on either side.
However, in the last 24 hours, there has been a little light let into this blackout. What’s happening in Kherson? As best I can tell, this is where things stand.
The last two weeks of relative news absence in the area means that quite a few things have changed, though it’s not all that easy to see them on a map. Ukraine is still fighting to take the same key locations at Kyselivka, Snihurivka, and Vysokopillya. The front line of forces are still about 15km out of Kherson proper. But just looking at those locations disguises a lot of action—so much so, that I’ve actually pulled out a new crayon to illustrate the changes.
As has happened so often on the Kherson front, Ukraine has made advances in between the major points of Russian occupation. The counteroffensive that was taking place at the extreme southern end of the line appears to be over for the moment. Instead, the action seems to be in the zone from Kyselivka to Snihurivka. The light blue area on this map indicates a zone of villages and towns that Ukraine has either flipped from Russian occupied, or from disputed, to Ukrainian controlled in the last two weeks. It’s … quite a lot, actually. It represents, if nothing else, a significant solidification of Ukrainian positions.
Note that several sources are still placing that whole wedge along a line from Novopetrivka down to Zahoryanivka under Russian control. However, there are good reasons to believe that the lines of control indicated on the map above are a fairly accurate representation of current conditions.
On Saturday morning, there were several reports that Snihurivka had been liberated, but these appear to be premature. As of Saturday, Russian forces were still confirmed to be present in both Novopetrivka and Snihurivka, but there was active fighting in the area and Ukrainian forces appear to be advancing. It’s possible there will be good news in this area soon. Clearing these two towns would open up major routes for forces moving out of Mykolaiv or coming south from Kryvyi Rih. This area appears to be the area of hard fighting at the moment, with several Ukrainian units maneuvering to advance in line.
Further up the Inhulets River, it’s unclear if there remains a Ukrainian presence on the east bank south of Davydiv Brid. Several sources have indicated that Ukrainian forces withdrew, surrendering this bridgehead. However, there are still scattered reports of fighting in the area, not just along the river near Davydiv Brid, but also as far from the river as Bruskynske. I’ve flipped all villages previously under Ukrainian control in this area to disputed as a means of saying “I don’t know.”
At the north end of the line, there has been very little news on what’s happening near Vysokopillya, which still represents a major distribution and command center for Russia. There have been continued reports of fighting at Arkhanhel's'ke, which would seem to represent an opportunity for Ukrainian forces to isolate the Russian troops at the extreme north of the Kherson front. But there is no confirmation of progress.
After two weeks of very limited news out of Kherson, the dam is starting to break. Ground sources are talking again. Soldiers are posting videos. It’s unclear if the Ukrainian MOD is in favor of bringing light to the situation, but the news is certainly appreciated by those of us who have been anxiously waiting for an update.
Russian Stuff Blowing Up Theater (Kherson edition)
Indications in the last two hours are that Lysychansk has fallen, or that only a small number of Ukrainian troops remain there. Video and images show Russian forces moving near the center of the city, and there has been a heavy bombardment of the roads running to the west as Ukraine attempts to withdraw soldiers and equipment to a new location being prepared near Siversk.
In the last two hours, there have been reports that Ukraine has secured the town of Ivanivka at the north end of the Kherson line. Fighting continues in Arkhanhel's'ke and Vysokopillya, but this is looking close to become a major change in control south of Kryvyi Rih.