“Henceforth every attempt Ukraine makes to take back territory will be a major victory.”
….After months of being on the defensive, they are anxious to get the Russians responding to their initiatives, especially while Moscow’s general staff is still working out how to adapt to the damage being done to their supply lines and command chains. Richard Moore, the head of UK’s MI6, has expressed the view that Russia could be “about to run out of steam” in Ukraine, as they find it increasingly “difficult to supply manpower material over the next few weeks. They will have to pause some way and that will give the Ukrainians opportunities to strike back.” He concluded that the “Ukrainians may have a window in which they can take advantage of what may turn out to be only a temporary Russian weakness”.
It is because of this potentially short window that the counter-offensive now appears to have begun. The Kherson regional military governor has claimed that Ukrainian troops have liberated 44 towns and villages along the border regions, about 15 per cent of the territory, and are now about 50 kilometres from Kherson city at their closest point. Another local official has spoken of how Kherson will be free by the end of September, although Zelensky has been more careful, promising only step-by-step progress. Yet another military official has compared the Ukrainian campaign to “waves”. “Right now we’re making small waves and creating conditions to make bigger ones.”
How might this work? The only sure way to dislodge Russian troops from established positions is to mount a large-scale counter-offensive, following up artillery fire with assaults combining armour and infantry. This may become necessary, although for the moment Ukrainian brigades are insufficiently equipped or prepared to mount such an attack with confidence. But while it might be difficult to push the Russians out using overwhelming force, it is not necessarily the only Ukrainian strategy. Alternatively it might be possible to render the Russian positions so uncomfortable that forces have to be withdrawn if they are to be preserved. Illia Ponomarenko of the Kyiv Independent has outlined a likely Ukrainian plan:
“As part of a counter-offensive operation, Ukraine would likely seek to block the occupied city, cut the Russian garrison off from supplies and reinforcements, and hold the blockade until Russia surrenders.”
He noted that the region’s front line, at over 200km, is too long for the Russians to secure completely, even with reinforcements. Instead they have, according to one expert Ponomarenko spoke to, “strong points in certain populated areas or road junctions”. Their ability to reinforce vulnerable units in a timely fashion is being limited by the continual targeting of logistical systems and command posts. Capable commanders are the scarcest military resource and they matter even more in a hierarchical system such as Russia’s. Most importantly they will need to worry about their forces getting trapped. Just as the big challenge for the Ukrainians in the battle for Luhansk was to know when to evacuate their forces before they were surrounded, this could now be the challenge for the Russians. Conspicuous attacks on the key routes in and out of the region – the Antonivsky bridges (hit again on 26 July) and a bridge by the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, both over the Dnieper river, reduce the Russians’ ability to move heavy equipment in and out, and put them on notice that the Ukrainians can cut off their lines of escape.
While the fight in eastern Ukraine has taken a heavy toll on both armies, with thousands of casualties, the fight to reclaim the vast stretches of the south controlled by Russia are critical to Ukraine’s survival as an economically viable, independent state.
Ukrainian forces are attacking Russian positions along multiple fronts west of the Dnipro River and have made significant gains in the Kherson region. Russian forces seized the territory in the first weeks of the war and have been steadily fortifying their positions.
The Ukrainians have broken through the outer perimeter defenses of the Russians outside of the city of Kherson, the regional capital, and have taken back several towns and villages.
However, the Ukrainian losses in the east and the limited supply of Western weapons — along with soldiers trained to use them — have slowed the Ukrainian counteroffensive. And as Ukrainian forces start to come up against Russians dug into defensive positions, military analysts say it could be a long bloody struggle to recapture populated urban centers.
The Russians have staged several attacks seeking to thwart the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but a senior U.S. defense department official said this week that the Ukrainians have so far been able to largely hold onto their gains. The Ukrainian military has said it is not naming all the villages and towns it is fighting in, in order to maintain operational security.
The city of Kherson sits in the delta of the Dnipro River, which runs the length of Ukraine and essentially divides the country along an east-west axis. Kherson is the only city Russia controls west of the river. It provides a vital staging ground for Russian forces across the south, with rail lines linking it to Crimea to the south and Russian-occupied territories to the east.