What's at stake for Ukraine in the Battle of Kherson

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky Illustrated | Gettyimages

Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive to re-take Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine. Victory could turn the tide of the war. Defeat could force Ukraine to give up large swaths of territory. Here's everything you need to know:

What is the state of Ukraine's southern counteroffensive?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Saturday that a Ukrainian counteroffensive was underway in Kherson Oblast, seeking to roll back Russian forces from a region they've controlled for nearly five months.

The regional capital city of Kherson, a river port with a pre-war population of around 300,000, fell to the invaders less than a week after the invasion began. Since then, Kherson has been the site of intense partisan activity, including the distribution of anti-Russian flyers and repeated bombings of a Russian-held airbase.

Zelensky said Saturday that his country's forces were advancing "step by step" into the region, after a month of shelling to soften up Russian positions. According to regional military governor Dmytro Butrii, since the early weeks of the war, Ukrainian forces have liberated 44 towns and villages along the Kherson Oblast border.

As Ukrainian troops advance on Kherson, they are also working to cut the defenders' supply lines, striking bridges and Russian ammunition depots. On Tuesday, Ukraine used a U.S.-made HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) to damage the critical Antonivskiy Bridge — which spans the Dnipro River — badly enough to prevent Russia from moving vehicles across it.

Will Russia put up a fight?

Russia is likely to offer stiff resistance. The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War cites social media footage that appeared to show Russian forces setting up fortifications along the P47 highway, which connects Kherson City with Kahkovka, some 50 miles to the east. These defenses will help Russia hold the western bank of the Dnipro — where Kherson City is located — and hinder Ukrainian forces who might attempt to cross the river and encircle the city from the southeast.

Serhiy Khlan, a former aide to Kherson Oblast's Ukrainian regional governor, said earlier this month that Russian forces in the city were "preparing for urban warfare." Oleksiy Danilov, a member of Ukraine's National Security Council, reported last week that Russia was conducting "a very powerful movement of their troops" to shore up the southern front.

Russian military analyst Vladislav Shurygin told Newsweek that occupying forces will fight to the last man. "Kherson is going to be under Russian control. The only question is, will the city remain functioning and intact ... or will we see something similar to the battle for Mariupol?" he said, referring to Russia's bloody, months-long siege of the port city in southeastern Ukraine.

This offensive is seen as a major risk for Ukraine. The New York Times reported that the decision to go on the attack "created debate among Western officials and some analysts about whether Ukraine was ready for such a big effort." The Daily Beast noted that "failing in Kherson would be a devastating loss for Ukraine" and that this "make-or-break offensive" could "hinge on western aid supplies, which Ukrainian officials say can't come fast enough."

What about Russia's plans to annex Kherson?

Ukrainian forces are racing against the clock. Intelligence suggests that rigged referendums on whether to join with Russia will be held in occupied areas sometime in September. Occupying forces are already working to impose Russian culture on Kherson, replacing Ukraine's currency with the ruble, bringing in Russian television and internet services, holding a "We Are Together With Russia" forum with local collaborators at Kherson State University, and erecting billboards that declare "We are one people."

Once Russia has completed the de jure annexation of its conquered lands, re-taking them will become a risky endeavor. Russian military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons to defend "the existence of the state," even against conventional attacks.

Retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, a frequent critic of Zelensky and of American support for Ukraine, argued in The American Conservative earlier this month that Ukraine cannot hope to reclaim territory and that they're likely to lose even more. "The future of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions along with the Donbas is decided. Moscow is also likely to secure Kharkov and Odesa, two cities that are historically Russian and Russian-speaking, as well as the territory that adjoins them," he wrote. MacGregor predicts that "[t]hese operations will extend the conflict through the summer" and that a negotiated settlement could then be reached. Unless, that is, Zelensky "consent[s] to the Biden program for perpetual conflict with Russia."

If MacGregor is correct and Russia does take Odesa, they'll almost certainly be able to secure a land bridge connecting Russia with Crimea and Crimea with the Russian-occupied separatist Romanian region of Transnistria, a war goal Russia has hinted at several times.

Others are more optimistic. "We can say that the Kherson region will definitely be liberated by September, and all the occupiers' plans will fail," Khlan said. Ukraine's government has not announced an official timeline for retaking the city.

What's happening on the eastern front?

Ukraine's defensive lines have solidified since the fall of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk earlier this month, but Russia is still conducting offensive operations against the well-defended cities of Bakhmut and Donetsk, the regional capital. Russian forces also launched a ground assault near Izyum and are positioned to threaten Siversk and Slovyansk, though these latter two cities appear to have been deprioritized.

The ISW continues to categorize the eastern front as Russia's "main effort" and suggests that Russia could "be intending to gain as much ground in Donetsk Oblast as possible before planned referenda in September."

Even if Russia is unable to make significant territorial gains, it can still wreak havoc by shelling towns and villages behind Ukrainian lines. Mounting civilian casualties and the destruction of critical infrastructure needed to generate electricity and heat people's homes during the coming winter prompted Zelensky to order a mandatory evacuation of parts of Donetsk Oblast on Saturday. The order could displace as many as 200,000 people, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

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