For weeks now, Ukrainian forces have methodically targeted supply lines of Russian troops occupying the strategically important region and city of Kherson. That doesn’t mean they may be close to launching a large-scale offensive to take it back.
Outgunned despite supplies of new weapons from its U.S. and European allies, Ukraine’s military has so far avoided a major assault on the southern city that straddles the Dnipro river and was among the first to fall to Russia’s invasion. Instead, they’ve focused on a policy of attrition, deploying U.S.-supplied HIMARS artillery missiles and other long-range weapons to blow up bridges used to resupply Russian troops dug in on Kherson’s west bank.
Ukraine is likely preparing a counteroffensive in the south but will only strike if and when it’s confident of making progress, and Russia’s logistics and supply lines have been further hit, two Western officials familiar with the matter said. The Ukrainian military is cautious as there’s a risk of becoming exposed once it advances, they said.
Nearly six months into the war, Russia’s campaign to seize full control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is making slow headway, while the intensifying Ukrainian pressure on Kherson has forced the Kremlin to divert troops to the south to shore up its positions. The strategy of drawing in and cutting off Russian troops on the city’s west bank may presage weeks or even months of positional attacks to wear down occupying forces in Kherson, rather than an outright assault.
There’s “a chance” Ukraine will reclaim Kherson in a couple of months, though it’s unlikely to be sooner, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in an Aug. 10 interview. The war may go on until at least New Year and probably to next summer to achieve the “complete liberation” of Ukrainian territory, he said.
Blasts in Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin annexed in 2014, are adding to the Kremlin’s security concerns.
The Defense Ministry in Moscow blamed sabotage for explosions Tuesday at an ammunition depot on the Black Sea peninsula near Dzhankoi, a week after blasts destroyed nine fighter aircraft at a Crimean airbase used to support Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian officials haven’t claimed direct responsibility for the incidents, while describing them as just the beginning of efforts to reclaim Crimea.
“The destruction of the occupiers’ logistics, their ammunition, military and other equipment, command posts, saves the lives of our people,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address, urging Ukrainians to avoid Russian army facilities in occupied territories. “The fewer opportunities the occupiers have to do evil and kill Ukrainians, the sooner we will be able to end this war and liberate our country.”
While Ukraine is working to degrade logistical support for Kremlin troops on the west bank of the Dnipro, “the preparation of a bridgehead, the accumulation of forces and a reserve, in order to push back the Russian forces, continues,” said Oleksandr Musiienko, head of the Center for Military Legal Studies in Kyiv.
Fresh attacks on bridges over the Dnipro at the weekend “make them unusable for transportation of heavy machinery” and complicate the movement of ammunition supplies for Russian forces in Kherson, Natalia Humenyuk, a Ukrainian military spokesperson, told local television Monday. Russian army commanders may have crossed the river out of the city following the bridge strikes, she said.
“Ukraine is pursuing two goals: to prepare for a counteroffensive and to distract Russian forces from their main focus which is taking over Donbas,” said Pavel Zolotarev, a retired Russian general who’s now an expert at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies in Moscow. While it’s unclear if a counteroffensive will succeed, “the second objective is more achievable,” he said.
Several thousand Russian troops in Kherson now almost certainly depend on two pontoon ferry crossing points for resupplies after a series of Ukrainian strikes, the U.K. Defence Ministry said in a weekend assessment. “With their supply chain constrained, the size of any stockpiles Russia has managed to establish on the west bank is likely to be a key factor in the force’s endurance,” it said.
A Ukrainian strategy of disrupting supply lines “is the smart thing to do,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “You can either attack head on and bang your head against a wall, which is not a wise thing to do against a force that has superior firepower. Or you can weaken that force by depriving it of supplies.”
Russia, in turn, has renewed shelling of Kharkiv in northern Ukraine to stretch Ukrainian defenses. Putin said Monday his military is “step by step liberating” the eastern Donbas region that includes Donetsk and Luhansk and will fulfill tasks he set when ordering the Feb. 24 invasion, even as international sanctions pummel Russia’s economy.
Russia moved a significant number of troops to Crimea in preparation for deployment in southern Ukraine and at least eight battalion tactical groups that comprise 800 to 1,000 soldiers were moved from the Donbas region, adding to pressure on supply routes, according to a European intelligence official. Ukrainian military officials earlier this month said Russian forces involved in the offensive around the strategic eastern city of Slovyansk including airborne troops had redeployed to the south.
“The Ukrainians would rather fight the Russians in Kherson than the Donbas because of the supply issues,” said O’Brien. “The more the Russians have their troops in Kherson the better that is for Ukraine.”
It “won’t be so easy to knock Russia out of Kherson,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. While Ukrainian forces may be having successes along the Dnipro against Russian lines of communication, “that doesn’t mean Ukraine will seize Kherson region.”
The current deadlock may be weighing on Russia’s hopes of holding early referendums to annex occupied eastern and southern regions of Ukraine as soon as next month. The head of the self-declared so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said Aug. 11 that a vote couldn’t take place until the region is fully under Russian control.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the U.S. and U.K. defense secretaries Lloyd Austin and Ben Wallace had warned him against emulating Russia’s “meat grinder tactics” in the war.
“We don’t have the resources to fill the territory with bodies and shells, as Russia does,” Reznikov said in an Aug. 11 interview with Ukrainskaya Pravda. “Therefore, it’s necessary to change tactics, to fight in another way.”