Ukrainian troops are continuing their arduous advance towards the strategic southern city of Kherson, after their lightning gains in the Kharkiv region in September. Analysts say a Ukrainian victory is likely. But they caution that a counter-offensive will be much harder than that rapid advance in the northeast – especially because so much is at stake for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kherson is a crucial strategic prize – the only regional capital the Russians control. And so is the Kherson region, the gateway to the Crimean peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. Now the Ukrainian forces are trying to encircle this city on the western bank of the Dnieper River – trapping Russian forces there – while targeting infrastructure their enemies rely on, such as the now unusable Antonovsky Bridge.
But the counter-offensive is much more difficult than it was in the northeast. It is now the rainy season in Ukraine, and that makes it much harder to move military vehicles around, as Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov noted at a press conference on Wednesday. He also said that Russian forces are using irrigation canals in Kherson region as trenches to slow down Ukrainian soldiers’ advance.
“The Ukrainian modus operandi is to strike at Russian logistics before launching major offensives; a strategy designed to isolate enemy troops while preserving their own resources and manpower,” said Sim Tack, a military strategy specialist at US security consulting firm Force Analysis. “We don’t know when the Ukrainians will reach the city of Kherson – but we do know that the Russians are actively preparing for it.”
In recent days, the pro-Russian authorities who control Kherson have been evacuating civilians en masse. More than 70,000 people left Kherson in the space of a week, head of the local administration Vladimir Saldo said on Thursday (Kherson had a population of 280,000 before the Russian invasion). Moscow says it wants to protect civilians in territory it annexed in late September but Kyiv accuses it of ordering a “mass deportation” to Russia.
“The Russians tried to create panic so they could film civilians fleeing [the Ukrainian advance] in fear; they’re trying to make Ukraine look like the aggressor for propaganda purposes,” said Teyana Ogarkova, a Ukrainian journalist at the Crisis Media Center in Kyiv.
Russians ‘won’t be able to hold out’
“On the Ukrainian side, the army is doing everything it can to force the Russians to retreat without resorting to street fighting,” Ogarkova continued. “The aim is to spare Ukrainians’ lives and ensure that Kherson is a city they can return to. Everything must be done to make sure we don’t have another Mariupol.”
Yet the Russian authorities in Kherson are determined to resist the Ukrainian advance. Moscow’s puppet administration in the region announced on Monday the creation of a local militia, saying all men who remained in the city could join it. “In Kherson, the situation is clear. The Russians are gathering their forces,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovich said in a video on Tuesday.
Members of the Russian-backed administration have fled along with civilians, Kherson’s deputy governor Kirill Stremousov said on Thursday – adding that the Russian army will not leave.
“Russian troops are not isolated in the city and still hold a pocket of terrain around it that they can use for defensive purposes,” Tack said.
Nevertheless, Tack continued, “the Russians have a limited ability to supply and reinforce their positions north of the river”. This makes them “unable to carry out effective counter-attacks”, so the situation “will only develop to their disadvantage”.
Ogarkova shares Tack’s view that Russian defeat in Kherson is inevitable. “The Russian forces won’t be able to hold out militarily,” she said. “But there is a lot at stake politically for the Kremlin in the battle for Kherson. The loss of the city would represent far too great a cost for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin because it could threaten the stability of his regime.”
Indeed, when annexing the four Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson on September 30, Putin said Russia would use “all our forces and means at our disposal” to defend them.
For several days, Putin has been propagating the baseless assertion that the Ukrainians are preparing a “dirty bomb” combining conventional explosives with radioactive materials. Ukraine and its allies see this claim as a pretext for Moscow to further escalate the conflict.
“Putin said the annexed regions are now Russian – but what happens once the Ukrainians take one of them back?” said FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Gauthier Rybinski. “As things stand, Putin hasn’t reawakened this question but it must be kept in mind because it could create an excuse for him to use a dirty bomb.”
This article was translated from the original in French.