What’s happening in Kherson isn’t exactly clear, and it’s likely to remain that way for some days. While so far Ukraine doesn’t seem to have taken any of what might be regarded as the most strategic targets—Vysokopillya in the north, Snihurivka guarding the routes east of Mykolaiv, or the city of Kherson itself—the territory that has reportedly changed hands does have considerable significance. On Monday and into Tuesday morning, reports filtered through Russian Telegram accounts and unofficial sources in Ukraine indicate that Ukraine has taken a number of towns and villages at multiple points on the line, several of which represent necessary steps toward liberating the region.
At the northern end of the line, Ukrainian troops have reportedly liberated Arkhanhel's'ke. This allows Ukraine to completely encircle Russian forces in Vysokopillya. That location has been one of the most fortified—and fought over—sites in all of Kherson oblast.
Russian previously used Vysokopillya as the launching point for attacks in the direction of Kryvyi Rih, and it has used the town as both a supply depot and command outpost. It’s been nearly a month since Ukrainian troops secured areas to the north and east, coming close to cutting off access to this Russian hard point. If the reports of Ukraine capturing Arkhanhel's'ke are correct, it seems almost impossible that Russia could continue to hold Vysokopillya for an extended period.
South of Davydiv Brid, Russian forces have at last acknowledged Ukrainan control of small villages along the Inhulets River as well as the capture of the Sukhyi Stavok. Ukrainian forces are reportedly sweeping east toward Bruskynske, which was the limit of attacks made shortly after Ukraine first secured its bridgehead on the east side of the river. Over the last month, numerous outlets have reported that Ukraine’s bridgehead across the Inhulets had been “wiped out” or was “no longer present,” but there has never been a direct Russian claim of recapturing those riverside villages.
Now Ukraine seems to have even more force across the river and is threatening to break into an area that would essentially be Russia’s backfield—sparsely occupied and lightly defended villages in the center of the oblast, behind what has been, until this week, a nearly static front line. If Ukraine can take Bruskynske, that would also renew the threat of an advance down the T2207 highway toward Beryslav and the bridge at Nova Kakhovka.
But if the advances in the south are accurate, then they’re by far the most significant. Among the villages reportedly captured by Ukraine on Monday were Tomyna Balka and the neighboring village of Novodmytrivka. If true, this represents a 10km cross country advance by Ukraine to secure a location it fought hard to reach—and failed to secure—in the previous counteroffensive. While Tomyna Balka was a tiny place (pop. 1000) in the pre-invasion period, both Ukraine and Russia have recognized that it has a tactically important location in southern Kherson oblast. In all of the flat, clear, hard-to-hold territory, this is some of the flattest and hardest, but from Tomyna Balka, Ukraine can move south to encircle forces along the coast, or press east toward the Kherson suburb of Bilozerka. If these reports are accurate, Ukraine is now threatening Russian forces along two of the three main highways into Kherson, and well behind the front line on two sides.
Frankly, the capture of Tomyna Balka in one day’s fighting is such good news that it’s difficult to believe. The report that Novodmytrivka was also liberated makes this news seem a bit more solid. Still, take it with a grain of skepticism … and an air of hope.
In addition to the reported capture of these locations that Russia has held since just days after the war began, reports of Russian shelling and Ukrainian advances suggest Ukraine has regained full control of formerly disputed Kyselivka, along with nearby Soldatske. This would seem to place all the Russian forces south of the major M14 highway in something of a salient. Maybe Ukraine can demonstrate those “pincers” that Russia can never seem to close.
It seems that Ukraine has renewed artillery or HIMARS strikes on bridges across the Inhulets. On that line, from Snihurivka down to Darivka, traffic over the river may be limited to barges and whatever pontoon bridges Russia can keep intact. This could leave Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnipro not just difficult to supply and support, but split in half north and south.
Finally, there were reports Monday night of renewed attacks on the two Dnipro bridges, one of which reportedly also damaged Russian pontoons or barges that were crossing near Kherson. The accuracy of these reports and extent of the damage will have to wait until images are available.
Satisfying and exciting as all these reports may be, it’s worth remembering that even on the best days, the control over many of these locations is questionable. We know whose flag is flying in Mykolaiv and Kherson, but in between … everyone is reliant on a lot of Telegram reports, geolocated images, and FIRMS hotspots to put together the best estimate. Just last week, it seemed that Russia was creating an ominous “bulge” in the area directly east of Mykolaiv. Now it seems that Ukraine is making a serious run at disrupting the entire oblast. Yet either (or both) of those interpretations may be overreactions.
Whatever actually happened in Kherson over the last 24 hours, the most important effect may be this: Russia is reportedly trying to relocate forces from the Donbas region to Kherson to resist this attack. This is happening just hours after Russia received reinforcements in the form of their long-discussed 3rd Army. Any plans that Russia was making to immediately throw those forces into a renewed eastern offensive have now been utterly scattered by Ukraine’s sudden move in Kherson. All of the Russian activity in the east on Monday seems to have been restricted to a few failed movements near Bakhmut and Siversk.
It’s impossible to divorce what’s happening in Kherson from what’s happening in the east. Even if Ukraine succeeded in nothing more than giving Russia a good scare, forcing commanders to rethink how many battalion tactical groups are needed to hold the south, that would be entirely worth it. Reports out of Kherson in which Russian commanders seem to be blaming conscripts from Luhansk and Donetsk for Russian losses, further increasing reports of tension in the Russian forces, also can’t help but be a good thing.
This renewed counteroffensive also contributes to making Russia’s mock “referendum” much less likely.
Russia being forced to frantically move forces from the east, weakening an already stalled assault; increased tension between Russian forces and those of the DNR and LNR; and efforts to hold a fake election making Kherson “part of Russia” sidelined? All of that could make this Ukrainian effort a winner before the first meter of ground was taken.
It’s almost a bonus that, for the moment at least, it seems like Ukraine’s counteroffensive is very much the real deal.
Panic in Belgorod
As the closest large Russian city to Ukraine and the location of a major Russian military base, Belgorod has been an instrumental location for Russia’s invasion. That’s particularly true when it comes to attacks on Kharkiv, about 50km to the south. Many of the rockets that have blasted apartment buildings in Kharkiv, as well as other Ukrainian cities, were launched from the area around Belgorod.
Ukraine has demonstrated ability when it comes to hitting targets around the city. That includes both a fast-flying, low-level helicopter attack that struck a fuel depot near Belgorod’s rail hub, and another attack, possibly involving a Ukrainian missile, that took out an ammunition depot to the southeast.
On Monday, panic surged in Belgorod with news that Ukraine was once again preparing to hit targets in the area.
It looks like that news was well-founded.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense had something to say about Russia’s recent missile attacks—which may help to explain why Ukraine feels more comfortable going on the offensive.
The artillery war
Another reminder of just how much artillery is being exchanged in this conflict:
With recent reports that Russia is using artillery shells at a rate greater than any nation in World War I, it’s good to know that Ukraine isn’t exactly undersupplied. And remember that the U.S. is far from the only nation sending 155mm shells their way.
Numerous reports this morning of large quantities of Russian equipment being unloaded in Donetsk oblast and moving to the west. Unclear what the quality of this equipment is or whether there are sufficient forces to operate the gear.
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There’s close combat, and there’s way too close combat.