On the Kherson front lines, little sign of a Ukrainian offensive

Ukrainian gains on the ground have stalled, awaiting arms delivery

A soldier, Col. Sine Petrovich, stands in a trench on the Kherson frontline on August 8.  Efforts by Ukrainian forces to recapture captured territory have slowed.
A soldier, Col. Sine Petrovich, stands in a trench on the Kherson frontline on August 8. Efforts by Ukrainian forces to recapture captured territory have slowed. (Wojciech Grzeszinski for The Washington Post)
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MYKOLAYOV REGION, Ukraine – On the front lines in southeastern Ukraine, there is little sign that a major counteroffensive is brewing.

For weeks, Western intelligence and military analysts have predicted that a Ukrainian campaign to retake Kherson and the surrounding region is imminent. But in trenches less than a mile from Russian positions in the area, Ukrainian soldiers bear down on increasing artillery barrages, with little ability to move forward.

“It’s on our left, on our right, over our heads,” Yuriy, a 45-year-old soldier in the Ukrainian army’s 63rd mechanized brigade, said of the incoming fire, which has intensified over the past week. At night, Russian forces conducted reconnaissance missions that probed sparsely held farmland. “It’s a more stressful situation,” he said.

Recapturing Kherson would deal a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine. The vast territory is important for supplying Crimea with fresh water, a problem that has cost Russia dearly Billions of rubles Since the peninsula was illegally annexed in 2014. It is a key step in any future Russian military push south towards Odessa, the iconic jewel on the Black Sea.

But time is running out if Ukraine is to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory goal. War by the end of the year, and the current situation on the ground raises the possibility of a long, grinding stalemate instead. Residents who have fled villages in the Kherson region have described Russian troops moving in reinforcements, and officials are keeping a close eye on those troop movements.

“They are dug in,” Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration in Krivi Rih, said Sunday after returning from a trip to inspect the front lines. “We know they are trying to strengthen their position. The enemy has significantly increased his artillery along the entire line,” he said of the 60-mile long front line after returning from a visit to the position on Sunday.

Lacking the basic artillery and armored vehicles needed to advance, Ukraine has focused on operations behind the front lines. In it A A mysterious attack earlier this week At a Russian air base in Crimea, a key supply hub for Russian operations in Kherson was previously assumed to be out of enemy reach.

The Ukrainian troops advanced here In recent months — the recapture of several villages from Russian occupation — has largely stalled as soldiers have been exposed to open terrain.

The roads soldiers zip through charred wheat fields on the front lines are pockmarked with craters from previous attacks, guided by Russia’s Orlan drones that let them pick and choose targets.

“There is nowhere to hide,” said Yuri, who has fought here non-stop since the beginning of the war and, like other soldiers, did not give his last name in accordance with protocol. His unit has a hodgepodge stock: modern antitank weapons and Soviet machine guns produced in 1944 and concentrated here.

The Crimea airfield blast was the work of Ukraine’s special forces, the official said

Ukrainian military officials are tight-lipped on any timeline for a broader push, but they need more supplies of Western weapons before that can happen. Ukraine lacks the capability for a full-scale invasion anywhere along the 1,200-mile front line, a security official acknowledged.

“We have to be honest — right now, Ukraine doesn’t have enough weapons systems for a counteroffensive,” said a defense and intelligence adviser to the Ukrainian government who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. to press.

“An outcome is still possible, but if so it will be the result of a smart Ukraine policy rather than countering Russia with equal strength,” the adviser said. “It’s very difficult to match them.”

In an interview this week, Ukrainian army commander Major General Dmytro Marchenko also said the “small contingent” of Western military aid meant it was “very difficult” to launch an offensive but expressed optimism that the dynamic would change soon.

“I think once we get the full package of this aid, our response will be very quick,” he said RBC NewspaperHe urged the people of Kherson to have “a little patience”.

Marchenko added, “It won’t last as long as everyone expected.

Others have tempered expectations by emphasizing that the situation is dynamic. Russia has launched in recent days New attacks on eastern cities of Ukraine.

“It changes a lot every day because the enemy moves their forces and we change our tactics and tactics,” said Yuri Sak, adviser to the defense minister. “Things change and plans change.”

Natalia Humenyuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s Southern Command, said a counteroffensive was “already happening” that was possible, adding that progress would be “slightly slower” and that the conflict was a “hybrid war”.

Some have even hinted Offensive trumpets may have been sounded here as part of a campaign of informational warfare, designed to draw Russian firepower away from the eastern flanks.

In Kherson, the misery of Russian occupation

And Russia is strengthening. About 3,000 troops entered the Kherson region last week, bringing the number of Russian troops west of the Dnieper River to at least 15,000, the intelligence adviser said.

Most of them are elite airmen who are helping bolster the exhausted Russian army that has been on the front lines for months, said Kirill Mikhailov, a Kyiv-based analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian research and investigation group.

Fleeing residents describe Russian troops hunkering down below.

“Two weeks ago they came with big equipment,” said a 42-year-old man from Novovorontsovka, near Kherson, who was in contact with parents there. “They are setting up bases in houses.” A 65-year-old man who left a small village Marines On June 11, Russian troops that had previously been rarely seen in her occupation began moving in large numbers in the days leading up to the escape. “They were digging trenches,” she said.

The troop moves have fueled concerns that Russia is preparing its own new offensive in the region. But while Russia may try to retake some villages recaptured by Ukrainian forces in recent months, it also lacks the means to launch a large-scale operation, analysts and officials say.

The forces surrounding the city of Kherson keep Russia’s only foothold on that side of the river, a natural defensive barrier that carves through Ukraine and requires supply routes to pass through several highly vulnerable chokeholds.

Those supply routes have proven vulnerable to Ukraine’s new US-supplied HIMAR rocket system. And with its strikes on Crimea, Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to strike at the heart of Russian military installations, a key military supply hub for Moscow’s operations in the south.

But if Ukraine were to retaliate, “the clock is ticking,” Mykhailov said. It will be a muddy season till October, making military operations difficult.

Ukraine is also using a hybrid strategy. In the city, much of the local population is hostile to business, said Konstantin Ryzenko, a Ukrainian journalist who lives there. Russian soldiers are already not seen on city streets for fear of attack, he said.

Those who remain, including officers from Russia’s FSB intelligence service and the police, have moved their bases to civilian locations in hospitals and urban areas, fearing HIMAR attacks, Ryzenko said.

“It only takes five seconds for one of them to turn around, to distract them, to hang them and drown them,” he said of the Russian military. In late June, a senior Russian appointed official was in town Killed in a bomb blast.

Given the strikes in Crimea, Russia’s hold on Kherson is under threat, said Dmitry Alperovich, president of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank.

“I think the Russians will be out of Kherson soon,” he said. “It’s becoming impossible – it’s really hard to supply the troops.”

A halt to Russian advances could put Ukraine back on the brink of war

It could prevent any Russian goal, however unrealistic, of taking Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast and creating a connection with the Russian-controlled region of Transnistria in Moldova. And while others point to Russia’s willingness to sacrifice its soldiers even for operations that make no strategic sense, Ukraine generally proceeds with caution.

“Ukraine’s military would never do anything as stupid as Russia’s, throwing people into war like cannon fodder to fulfill the ambitions of their leaders,” Sak said. “The question is the price.”

Russia is militarily less vulnerable in the area of ​​Kherson province on the east bank of the Dnieper River. The region is essential for Putin’s long-held “land bridge” to Crimea and its fresh water supply.

In the first days after the invasion, Russian forces blew up a dam in a canal in the region that had long angered Putin. Ukraine closed the waterway after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014. Once fertile farmland turned into parched barren flats, and the Kremlin was forced to pay billions in subsidies and invest in new water projects.

This is territory that Putin is unlikely to relinquish without a hard fight.

My hometown, now occupied by Russia, is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster

Even if Ukraine had enough manpower to launch a push, Saak said there was a risk of unnecessarily sending troops into an attack with little chance of success without more sophisticated weaponry.

Some Ukrainian military units are already paying the price. For nearly six months, Ukraine’s 28th Mechanized Brigade has fought on the southern front, fending off lightning fire by Russian forces outside the city of Mykolaiv.

The unit’s battle-hardened fighters are clawing back at the region as they inch closer to Kherson. Despite having the best equipped and most professionally trained units on the front lines, Russian artillery attacks in the open field maimed and killed many of their soldiers.

In late July, the commander of the 28th Mechanized Brigade, Vitaly Hulyayev, is killed in action, and his fellow soldiers plan to avenge his death.

“We will reach Kherson,” said the battalion commander of the unit, which goes by the call sign Zloi, which translates to Angry or Mean. “We will have our revenge.”

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