Ukraine says with new offensive it can reclaim territory lost to Russia – but is this realistic?

As the Kremlin seems to see it, the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson on the Dnipro River has already been incorporated into the Russian Federation.

Home to 280,000 people before the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Kherson was the first major population center in the beleaguered country to fall to Russian troops, and its Russian-appointed administrators accelerated efforts to clear all symbol of Ukrainian sovereignty.

They distributed Russian passports to residents, introduced Russian banks, introduced Russian mobile phone companies, and made the ruble legal tender, replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia.

But with the war just days away from entering its sixth month, Ukrainian authorities are signaling that the time is fast approaching when its military will attempt to retake the captured city and expel its Russian occupants.

President Volodymr Zelenskyy and members of his administration urged civilians to move away.

« I know for sure that there shouldn’t be women and children there, and they shouldn’t become human shields, » Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said recently.

Kherson Key to Both Sides: Retired Colonel

Over the past six weeks, piecemeal Ukrainian assaults have chipped away at Russian-held territory in the south of the country, allowing its soldiers to come within 20 kilometers of Kherson.

« Forty-four settlements have already been liberated in Kherson Oblast, » Dmytro Butriy, acting head of the region’s military administration, told an online news conference in Kyiv on Thursday.

“The situation there is difficult,” he continued, saying the destruction caused by Russian shelling is “massive” and that houses, schools and many other buildings have been damaged.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian soldiers board a tank near a front line in the Donbass region. While Russia is waging war on a vast 1,000 kilometer front, most of its forces are concentrated in Ukraine’s Donbass region, where the two sides are locked in a vicious fight of attrition. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

But it’s unclear whether it’s as far as the counter-offensive and how much strength the Ukrainian army can muster after weeks of deadly fighting in the southeastern Donbass region.

Retired Ukrainian Colonel Serhiy Grabsky argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war fate depends on his military detention in Kherson – and Ukraine’s ability to remove him.

« This location will open the door to the liberation of the whole country and an end to all of Russia’s strategic goals, » said Grabsky, who held several international positions during a 28-year career, including as as a military adviser to Iraq. government.

He said pushing Russia out of Kherson would end any threat to Ukrainian cities, such as Mykolaiv and Odessa, and put Russian military installations on the Crimean Peninsula within reach of Ukraine’s new Western weapons, including including US HIMARS long-range rocket launchers.

Serhiy Grabsky, a retired Ukrainian army colonel and military analyst, said pushing Russia out of Kherson would end any threat to Ukrainian cities, such as Mykolaiv and Odessa, and put Russian military installations in the Crimean Peninsula within reach of Ukraine’s new Western weapons. (Serhiy Grabsky)

« We could put under ‘fire control’, as we call it, all exits from Crimea, » Grabsky said.

While Russia is waging war on a vast front of 1,000 kilometers, most of its forces are concentrated in the Donbas region, where the two sides are locked in a vicious fight of attrition.

Russia gained territory, including the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, but at a considerable cost in the lives and equipment of its soldiers.

HIMARS surpasses the Russian arsenal

Grabsky said the southern front, which includes Kherson, is stretched, with more or less equal Ukrainian and Russian forces.

That is why, he said, Ukrainian commanders see an opportunity to gather their forces and break through the Russian lines.

« I’m absolutely optimistic, » he told CBC News.

WATCH | Residents of Kherson describe strict living conditions under Russian control:

Residents of Russian-controlled city of Kherson describe strict conditions

Tens of thousands of residents of the Russian-held city of Kherson in southern Ukraine have fled since Moscow’s invasion began. Those who remain say there are consequences to challenging Russia.

Estimates of Russian military casualties since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, range from a high of almost 37,000 dead – as Ukraine claims – to almost 15,000 or 20,000 according to reports. US and UK estimates.

However, Ukraine also suffered heavy casualties, including up to 200 soldiers killed in action every day during the height of the fighting for Severodonetsk, where Russia ultimately triumphed.

An M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is fired at an unknown location in Ukraine, in this still image obtained from undated social media video uploaded June 24. The United States has provided Ukraine with eight HIMARS so far, with four more to come. (Pavlo Narozhnyy/Reuters)

Rather than a full assault on Kherson, Grabsky said he expects Ukraine to continue with a « soft push » of its forces, to choke off supply routes into the city and ultimately cut it off.

Lately, Ukraine has used its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, to disrupt Russian supply hubs deep inside occupied territory, including several ammunition dumps.

The United States has provided Ukraine with eight HIMARS so far, with four more to come. The rockets are capable of hitting targets over 80 kilometers away with pinpoint accuracy – far beyond the capabilities of anything Russia has in its arsenal.

Footage shared by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry showed what it claims was the obliteration by HIMARS precision fire of a Russian ammunition depot at Nova Kakhovka, near Kherson. And earlier in the week, Ukraine claimed the same system hit a Russian command post, killing a number of senior officers.

A screenshot from a video released by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry shows what it claims was the explosion of a Russian munitions depot in Nova Kakhovka, near Kherson, on Monday. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry)

If Ukraine can mount a counteroffensive in the south that leads to the liberation of Russian-held territory, it would be the first such success for the Ukrainian military since the February invasion.

By comparison, when Russian troops were driven out of the Kyiv region and parts of northern Ukraine around Kharkiv in April, it was after their own offensives had failed.

Other military observers, however, remain cautious about predicting a Ukrainian breakthrough at Kherson.

Russia’s « grinding » campaign is effective

Retired four-star US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2013 to 2016, told BBC Radio Today program this week that Russia’s « overwhelming and indiscriminate » campaign to deplete Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure has been effective.

However, he said, Ukraine can probably still bring a sizeable army against Kherson.

« They don’t have the massive manpower that Russia has across their country, but I would tell you that Ukraine has much more experienced soldiers than Russia. It’s in Ukraine’s favour. » , said Breedlove.

A former Ukrainian command center is shown near Izyum in eastern Ukraine. The region, which borders the Donbass, has been the scene of fierce attrition battles, with control of territory swinging between Russian and Ukrainian forces. (Chris Brown/CBC)

Rob Lee, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, who has meticulously followed the course of the conflict, suggests that Ukraine will need more help of all kinds from the West for an offensive to succeed.

« Kyiv will likely need a more robust training and ammunition program if they are to retake a significant amount of territory, » he wrote in a Twitter post.

Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said it appears Ukrainian commanders decided there was more to be gained by focusing on Kherson than countering it. attacking in the Donbass, where Ukraine regularly cedes territory.

« I think by the end of the summer, definitely, they want to be shown that they’re doing something, that it’s not a dead end, » he told CBC. News.

Away from the battlefield, Russia has increased pressure on European nations such as Germany by limiting gas supplies. It also prevents Ukrainian grain shipments from leaving Black Sea ports, creating a global food crisis.

The Kremlin seems hopeful that continued pressure will undermine Western willingness to help Ukraine and convince Ukrainians to accept Russia’s terms of surrender.

Protesters chant « Go home » as they march towards the withdrawal of Russian military vehicles in Kherson on March 20. Since taking control of the city, Russian-appointed administrators have handed out Russian passports, introduced Russian banks, brought in Russian mobile phone companies, and made the ruble the legal currency. (Reuters)

Conversely, if Ukraine can demonstrate that a meaningful battlefield victory against Russia is possible, it is in a better position to demand more Western aid, O’Brien said.

Kherson is « the place where they should be able to attack with the best chance of success – when they are ready ».

“We are in a phase of attrition”

Putin has repeatedly reduced his stated goals for his invasion of Ukraine.

At first, the lightning assault on Kyiv with paratroopers in the early hours of the war seemed aimed at capturing the capital and decapitating the Zelenskyy government.

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy reviews Ukrainian military positions in the Dnipropetrovsk region July 8 as the Russian attack on the country continues. (Reuters)

Then, after Russian troops suffered heavy casualties and retreated, Putin’s commanders reframed the war as a fight for Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in the Donbass region.

However, despite some territorial gains, the Russian army was unable to push the Ukrainian forces out of the eastern region, nor stem heavy losses on their side.

« We’re in an attrition phase. And the attrition phase will have to end at some point, » O’Brien said.

« I think when it ends, it will end quickly because the [front] line will be too weak, and there needs to be a major adjustment. »

Grabsky, the retired Ukrainian colonel, said he believed HIMARS could be what would tip the balance of the conflict in favor of Ukraine.

“The intensive strikes against the Russian logistics system really mean that day by day the Russians will lose their ability to advance into Ukrainian territory,” he said.


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