The precision-guided rockets that slammed into the Antonivskyi Bridge across the Dnieper River in the southern region of Kherson last week may have marked the beginning of a new, high-stakes phase in the war in Ukraine. Kherson is the only provincial capital that Russian forces control — and the bridge is a vital conduit for resupplying those forces.
According to Ukrainian and Western assessments, the bridge is now unusable for military traffic, and the other bridges have been struck as well. According to an assessment from Britain’s Ministry of Defense, the strikes have left Russia’s 49th Army, stationed on the west side of the Dnieper River, “highly vulnerable” and the city of Kherson “virtually cut off from the occupied territories.”
Ukrainian forces have been launching limited counteroffensives around Kherson for months now, but the recent strikes, which were made possible by Ukraine’s new U.S.-supplied High-Mobility Advanced Rocket Systems (HIMARS), appear to be the opening phase of an all-out Ukrainian offensive to retake the city.
We don’t know exactly when this offensive will begin, and the people who do know have no incentive to tell us. But it’s likely to be sooner rather than later, perhaps in a matter of weeks. “Once you disable a logistics node, or a bridge or a high-speed avenue of approach, you have to capitalize on that within a certain amount of time,” Jeffrey Edmonds, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), told Grid.
A campaign to recapture Kherson would mark a shift in a conflict that has so far been characterized primarily by Russian offensives and Ukrainian defense. It’s a high-stakes gamble for the Ukrainians: Retake Kherson, and they regain control of an economically vital region, prevent a key political win for the Russians, and tie down Russian forces that could otherwise make further gains in the east. Lose, and they may waste precious weaponry and even more precious lives for little territorial gain. It’s not clear they’ll have another chance.
“Our forces are moving into the region step by step,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week.
Those next steps may well determine the outcome of this war.
Why Kherson matters
The city of Kherson straddles the Dnieper, one of Europe’s longest rivers. Its prewar population of almost 300,000 was a mix of Ukrainian and Russian speakers. Kherson was the first major city to fall to the Russian invasion and unlike Mariupol and Severodonetsk, which were captured only after weeks of heavy fighting and virtually annihilated in the process, Kherson fell after just a few days of fighting in the early days of the war.
That timing means the Russians are entrenched there; the occupiers have moved quickly to establish political control in the region, installing a new administration for the city and the surrounding region, cutting off access to Ukrainian television channels and internet service providers, and banning the use of Ukrainian currency. Statues of Vladimir Lenin, removed in 2014, have been restored in some towns — ironic, given that the current government blames the Bolshevik leader for many of Russia’s current struggles. There were anti-Russian protests in Kherson in the early weeks of the occupation, but these were put down by Russian troops with gunfire and stun grenades and appear to be less frequent now.
All indications suggest Russia is planning to formally annex the region as Russian territory, as it did with Crimea in 2014. The U.S. government has warned that Russia is likely planning a referendum in Kherson as early as this fall. Any referendum would be dismissed as a sham by Ukrainians and the vast majority of the international community, just as the Crimean one was, but it might give Russian President Vladimir Putin more pretext to declare “victory” in this war.
Losing Kherson, on the other hand, would be disastrous for Russia — for strategic and symbolic reasons. The Russian military’s early setbacks around Kyiv and Kharkiv were, by all accounts, disastrous for the invading forces’ morale. Since then, Russia’s overwhelming artillery advantage has allowed it to make slow, costly but undeniable progress in eastern Ukraine. But whatever optimism Russian forces now feel would be hard to sustain if Russia began to actually lose territory — and Kherson is a relatively large chunk of territory. A loss at Kherson would wipe one of the Russians’ most unambiguous victories off the board. It would also be the type of setback that would be difficult to hide with even the most skillful propaganda.
Beyond the symbolism, southern Ukraine is an agriculturally and economically vital region. Its power plants and reservoirs could potentially sustain Crimea, which has been cut off from the Ukrainian power grid and water infrastructure since 2014. And the port of Kherson could play a major role in Ukraine’s efforts to restart grain shipments through the Black Sea.
Russia is now believed to be relocating a significant number of troops from the eastern Donbas region to southern Ukraine in anticipation of a Ukrainian attack. Given its well-publicized personnel issues, these are troops Russia’s strained military can’t afford to lose.
Anton Korynevych, an ambassador-at-large with Ukraine’s foreign ministry, told Grid that while Ukraine’s ultimate war aim remains a return to the borders of 1991 — which would mean Russian troops would be removed from Crimea and the Donbas — in the near term, Kherson is the priority. “It’s really important,” he said, “to regain control of the southern parts of Ukraine.”
The risks for Ukraine
It’s obvious why Kherson is a priority for the Ukrainians, but it’s less obvious that now is the best moment for an attack. “Attacks require either overwhelming force or surprise,” Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Grid. Ukraine won’t have surprise on its side; this article would not exist if it did. Ukrainian officials have told civilians in the area to evacuate, and they acknowledge that Russia has been bolstering its forces in Kherson in preparation for the counteroffensive, though the destruction of the bridges will make that more difficult. It’s also not clear that the Ukrainians can pull off overwhelming force.
Ukrainian forces’ morale may have been bolstered in recent weeks by the arrival of the American HIMARS and other heavy weapons systems, but many of these systems have yet to arrive, and most Ukrainian troops have yet to be trained on them. More importantly, the grinding trench warfare in eastern Ukraine has taken a horrific toll on Ukraine’s army power. At one point in June, up to 200 Ukrainian troops were dying every day. The widely cited British defense analyst Jack Watling recently estimated Ukraine has seen more of its troops killed or injured in the east than the total number of infantry in the British Army — around 20,000 troops.
The Russians, of course, have seen catastrophic losses as well: As many as 75,000 troops have been killed or injured, according to a recent U.S. intelligence assessment. But in warfare, the general rule is that an attacker requires three times as many forces as the defender to control an area. So far in the war, that math has favored the Ukrainians. The advantage would flip when Ukrainians went on the attack.
That said, the Ukrainians would have advantages as well. Unlike in the east, where they are fighting close to the Russian borders, Ukraine’s supply and communications lines would be short in the south, while the Russian lines would be stretched. And the HIMARS strikes have, by all accounts, thrown Russian logistics and command structures into disarray.
On the other hand, the Ukrainians are unlikely to be willing to use the kind of scorched-earth tactics the Russians used to deadly effect in Mariupol and Severodonetsk on one of their own cities. “There’s always an advantage to fighting dirty,” said Edmonds. “The Russians are clearly not concerned about collateral damage, so it allows them to be more indiscriminate. It simplifies their operations and simplifies artillery strikes.”
The risk, as Doughtery sees it, is that Ukraine could find itself in the same kind of slow, grinding war of attrition in the south that Russia has faced in the east.
“If you’re wrong,” he said, “you’re going to lose a lot of Ukrainian people and your very limited supplies of things like armored vehicles and munitions, and you’re going to gain maybe 15 kilometers. Then it’s going to be October, and you’ll have just grinded your force to death.”
There’s an argument to be made that the Ukrainians would be better off waiting several months for more weaponry to arrive from the west and more troops to be effectively combat-trained. But the country’s leaders may not feel they have that kind of time.
“In war, there’s oftentimes a divergence between military and political imperatives,” noted Dougherty. “Militarily, I would say don’t do this. But politically, I would say, you probably have to do this.”
The ticking clock for Ukraine has less to do with Russia’s plans for annexation, which Kyiv would entirely ignore, than concerns about the state of international support. There was an ominous warning this month for Ukraine from Italy, where Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a staunch supporter of military aid to Ukraine, was forced to resign due to splits in his coalition — some related to the war and others related to energy, inflation and other issues exacerbated by the war. The so-far impressive Western unity behind support for Ukraine will be sorely tested this winter, when high prices and possibly energy shortages really start to bite in Europe.
And while much of the world has been willing to back Ukraine’s efforts to prevent Russia from taking more of its territory, giving Ukraine the long-term support it will need to actually retake territory will be a tougher sell. It may be easier if Ukraine can demonstrate now that it’s capable, not just of resisting but pushing back as well.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.