Ukraine wants to push Russia out from around Kharkiv in the north in order to spare the city incessant rocket and artillery attacks. Putting the Russian city of Belgorod, a military logistical hub, within artillery range would be a bonus.
Ukraine wants to stop Russian advances in the Donbas, because every inch of territory lost is an inch that will later have to be retaken, with a heavy cost in blood.
But the south? That’s the region that will make or break Ukraine.
Russia has held the Crimea and half of Donetsk Oblast since 2014, while it captured a swatch from Kherson to Mariupol in the early days and months of the war. A limited Ukrainian counteroffensive over the last couple of months has rolled back Russian advances around Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, and are within 15 kilometers of Kherson city itself. A second limited counteroffensive has clawed back some territory on that eastern chunk of land, north of Berdiansk. While Ukraine would love to retake Crimea and all of the Donbas, its more immediate wish would be to liberate the cities of Berdiansk, Kherson, Mariupol, and Melitopol.
That desire isn’t just a matter of wounded national pride, however. The very economic lifeblood of Ukraine flows through those cities—all but Melitopol important ports. The last two remaining port cities under Ukrainian control, Odesa and Mykolaiv, are effectively blockaded by the major Russian naval presence in Sevastopol. Ukraine needs all of these cities to export the mass of agricultural products that feed millions in Africa and the Middle East.
Rail can’t transport Ukraine’s harvest to its international customers. The country and its European partners are working on hacks to gets some out via rail, but that offers only a fraction of the capacity of ocean freight at much greater cost. Ukraine needs those ports back for the same reason Russia prioritized their capture—whoever controls those ports controls Ukraine’s economic destiny.
On Saturday night, HIMARS rocket artillery shelled the airpot at Melitopol, an aviation hub for Russian aircraft.
At $135,000 per guided MLRS rocket (GMLRS), Ukraine has to be judicious in what it strikes. One pod carries $810,000 worth of ordinance. They won’t be using those to hit armored conveys, better to save this long-range expensive stuff for ammo depots, concentrations of high-ranking officers, and airports. Anything that degrades Russia’s air capabilities will make Ukraine’s southern advances easier.
(This also shows why more MLRS/HIMARS launchers aren’t necessarily helpful, when each rocket salvo costs nearly $1 million. Ammunition will always be the greatest constraint in operating these.)
The use of at least two of Ukraine’s four HIMARS launchers on Melitopol shows a curious shift in tactics—all four had been reportedly been used, oftentimes in concert, against Donbas-front targets. But Russia has lost over a dozen major arms depots in the region over the past week, and defensive lines are moving to the Bakhmut-Sivers’k line, where M777s and other Ukrainian artillery can provide solid cover. That has clearly given Ukraine space to shift some of that precious HIMARS support south.
Russia now has to decide whether to remain all-in on the Donbas front, driving toward the twin fortresses of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, or reinforce the southern front to halt Ukraine’s slow advance. Regardless what they choose, Ukraine’s key priority seems obvious—liberate the port cities, and perhaps even make a move on Crimea (and the Russian naval presence supporting its economic blockade of Ukrainian sea trade), before looking toward a Donbas region that serves little strategic or economic purpose—particularly since many of those cities are rubble or impoverished from eight years of Russian occupation.
We’ve long detailed the cost of advancing on Kherson—the flat, open terrain is unforgiving to advancing forces, easy pickings for enemy artillery (from both sides). Ukraine will need more of the high-powered artillery to cover their advances, suppressing enemy defenses and artillery batteries. By all indications, very few of the modern western NATO-standard guns have made it to the Kherson front. Official Ukrainian forces and military analysts still says August-September is the most likely timeline for a real counter-offensive.
Yet despite those challenges, Ukraine continues to advance, daring Russia to either move forces out of the Donbas front, or continue losing territory that both sides consider critical to their strategic war aims.
On the ground, Russia has captured all of Luhansk Oblast.
Vladimir Putin gets a big propaganda victory out of these developments, but it has zero effect on the broader strategic picture. Even Russian sources admit that they were unable to trap any significant number of Ukrainian forces—failing to deal Ukraine a strategic defeat. Losing any territory sucks, but this one is of little real value. The soldiers and their equipment? That would’ve been irreplaceable.
Monday, Jul 4, 2022 · 6:58:47 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner
Artillery activity today in the Kherson region is just incomprehensible.
The whole line of demarcation between Russian and Ukrainian control is simply being plowed. It’s hard to even say who is doing the work here, there are areas — on the south end of the line, and near Davydiv Brid — where the big blasts seem to be falling solidly in Russian occupied territory. But at other points, fire is raining down right on what was thought to be the area of conflict between the two sides.
When it comes to Davydiv Brid, here’s just that part of the line in detail.
The area shows intense, but also precisely targeted fire, blanketing square kilometers of area east of the Inhulets River.
Ukrainian forces are reported to still hold a bridgehead in this area.
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