In the last week, the Ukrainian military has achieved great success after a surprise counteroffensive in the east. In five days of offensive operations, the Ukrainian forces have liberated more territory than the Russian military had captured in five months.
But the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv isn’t the only one going on at the moment.
Indeed, only a few days earlier, the counterattack in the east was seen as nothing more than an opportunistic push enabled by the lack of Russian troops on the sector, with the long-in-the-works counteroffensive in the south toward Kherson being considered the main effort.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south began shortly after the Russian military launched its renewed offensive in the Donbas in mid-May after regrouping and refitting from the failed push toward Kyiv in the spring.
To be sure, at the start, the Ukrainian counteroffensive was nothing more than an attempt to retake small settlements and pin down Russian forces in the south so that they couldn’t be used in the Donbas where the heavy fighting was raging.
As the U.S. and NATO loosened up the security aid restrictions and started providing Ukraine with M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), and more M-777 155mm Howitzers, the Ukrainian military was finally able to target and take out Russian logistical functions and command and control hubs with previously unseen accuracy. The introduction of these weapon systems allowed Kyiv to set the conditions for a major push toward Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Related: Watch: How the Ukrainians are trolling the Russian military with the M142 HIMARS
Slowly and deliberately, over the course of almost three months, the Ukrainians degraded the Russian military capabilities in the south, destroying vehicle and rail bridges, anti-air defenses, ammunition depots, fuel dumps, command and control hubs, and electronic warfare positions.
And in late August, the Ukrainian military was ready to exploit the degraded Russian capabilities in the south and launched a major counteroffensive, advancing in five different directions. That offensive operation is very much still taking place, and Ukrainian forces are edging closer to Kherson. Ukrainian long-range strikes have destroyed essentially all ways in which the Russian forces could cross the Dnipro River, thus restricting the flow of men and supplies.
Progress in the south is much slower than in the east for several reasons, with one main being geography. The land around Kherson is agricultural with irrigation channels that facilitate defense. Another main reason is that the Russian defenses in the region have been bolstered with reinforcements from elsewhere — including the east which facilitated the recent Ukrainian blitzkrieg there.
Related: When Russian attack helicopters opened fire on the press
Why Kherson matters
From the beginning, the counteroffensive toward Kherson was a calculated risk. Starting at the same time as the Russian renewed offensive in May, the Ukrainian military was risking its defense in the crucial Donbas to push toward the south. Forces that could have gone to the defense of Severodonetsk or Lysychansk were instead committed to a seemingly benign push in the south.
Kherson is strategically important to both sides. The city is the only Russian presence in the north and west of the Dnipro River, which snakes through Ukraine from the north to the Black Sea. The Russian military lacks the robust bridge-crossing capabilities necessary to ford large rivers, such as the Dnipro, and is thus heavily dependent on strategic footholds like Kherson.
Another reason why Kherson matters is that it leads to Crimea. Since 2014, when it was invaded and annexed by Russia, the Crimean Peninsula has been a key location for the Russian military, which has fortified it with anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapon systems.
Capturing Kherson would enable the Ukrainian forces to reach Crimea and frustrate the Russian objective of creating a land corridor between southern Ukraine and Crimea, thus largely pushing Ukraine out of the Black Sea.
Feature Image: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (The Presidential Office of Ukraine)
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