The war in Ukraine is in its seventh month, and after many weeks the focus of most of the fighting has shifted from eastern to southern Ukraine. Despite its renewed offensive in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, the Russian military has failed to achieve anything significant there.
Over the past two months, Russian troops have only advanced between six and 10 miles, only capturing Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, both of which the Ukrainians decided to abandon after they had inflicted heavy casualties on the Russian forces.
The Ukrainian military is using its new long-range fires, including Western High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), and howitzers, to great effect, destroying Russian ammunition depots and logistical hubs all over the Donbas, thus grinding the Russian machine to a halt.
But at around the same time that the Russian forces focused on the Donbas in early May, the Ukrainian military was laying the groundwork for its counteroffensive in the direction of Kherson, a strategically important Ukrainian city in the south.
Now, as the Ukrainian counteroffensive has started and is edging closer to Kherson with every passing day, the Russian military is starting to shift forces from the stagnant Donbas front to Kherson where Ukraine is attacking.
The strategic importance of Kherson
When the Ukrainian military decided to lay the groundwork for its counteroffensive in the direction of Kherson only a few days after the Russian military started an onslaught in the Donbas, it took a great risk. If the Ukrainian defenses didn’t hold in the Donbas, the counteroffensive in the south would have been doomed. But it was a calculated risk.
Kyiv understands that right now Kherson is more important strategically than the Donbas. The southern Ukrainian city is the only foothold that the Russian military has north and west of the Dnipro River, which runs through Ukraine, from Kyiv to the Black Sea. The Dnipro River is probably the most important strategic barrier on the Ukrainian battlefield as it splits the country in two.
The Russian military has proven that it lacks the robust bridge-crossing capabilities required for modern offensive operations. A few months ago, when the Russian forces tried to ford a river in the Donbas in order to encircle the Ukrainian positions, they lost hundreds of men and more than 80 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and other vehicles without achieving anything in the process. So, any footholds across the Dnipro are gold in terms of strategic value for the Russians.
Kherson is the only provincial capital and the most important urban center that the Russians have captured.
Kherson, moreover, leads to Crimea. Invaded and annexed by Moscow in 2014, Crimea has long been in the crosshairs of the Ukrainians. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have stated that an acceptable end to the war would have Crimea in Ukrainian hands once more.
Kyiv needs the Kherson counteroffensive to succeed
The Ukrainian people seem to be behind Zelensky and his government. Polls indicate that the Ukrainians wouldn’t accept a peace that involves territorial concessions to Russia — though it is unclear if they think Crimea to be Ukrainian after almost a decade of Russian occupation.
Crimea has lately become the target of Ukrainian attacks. Yet, to further push toward Crimea in the future, Ukraine would first need to control Kherson.
The Russian forces in Kherson are largely held hostage by the Ukrainian long-range fires. Over the last couple of weeks, the Ukrainian forces have used their long-range fires to target Russian ammunition depots, logistical hubs, and command and control posts — such as headquarters and air defense radars — miles behind the frontlines. This is forcing the Russian military to move back its lines of supply and main logistical hubs. Moving back logistical hubs depletes the Russian troops along the contact line of basic needs, such as ammunition and reinforcements, because now the supply line is that much longer and requires more vehicles to cover it.
Recapturing Kherson will send a signal to Kyiv’s Western allies that Ukraine can win the war. As winter approaches and energy prices rise across Europe due to Russia cutting down natural gas supplies, ensuring continued Western support will be paramount for Ukraine.
Feature Image: Burning fields in Kherson Oblast after Russian shelling. (National Police Force of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons)
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 3, 2022. It has been updated to reflect the ongoing Ukrainian counterattack.