The south, with the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, is indispensable for the Ukrainians. The fields are full of watermelons, tomatoes, wheat and sunflowers, important agricultural goods for the country. Russia has already begun exporting agricultural products via Crimea and other ports. For Putin, access to the Black Sea and the land bridge to Crimea are important strategic objectives. Were the Ukrainians able to regain control over Kherson, the port city of Odessa would become even more difficult for Putin to take. Furthermore, the Ukrainians are also under pressure to produce successes on the battlefield in order to secure long-term military support from their Western backers. It would also take the wind out of the sails of those who would like to see a supposedly inferior Kyiv surrender to the invaders.
With the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, all signs point to the war having entered its third, and potentially decisive phase. After the initial Russian invasion, which failed miserably just outside the capital Kyiv, came the Donbas offensive, which was more successful from Moscow’s point of view. Now, Kyiv hopes to fight back in the south and regain some of the territory it lost earlier. “What has definitely changed is that Ukraine now holds the military initiative,” says Gady, the IISS expert. “Moscow has shifted its troops such that they are now on the defensive, which makes large territorial advances such as those seen in the Donbas essentially impossible.”
Gady believes that the events seen near Kherson in recent days still count as preparation for a larger advance. Either the Ukrainians want to prepare the way for a major offensive or they want to pin down the Russians there so they can launch an attack elsewhere. “We will definitely see another large Ukrainian offensive before the winter,” says the military expert.
The most immediate goal of such an offensive would likely be that of pushing the Russians back to the Dnieper River. According to estimates, up to 15,000 Russian soldiers may currently be in the Kherson area west of the river. Should they become incapacitated or forced to retreat, it would represent a serious defeat for Moscow. Much of their equipment would likely end up in Ukrainian hands, since heavy equipment can no longer cross the damaged bridges spanning the Dnieper.
The tense expectancy of many Ukrainians is palpable on the social networks these days. Well-known journalist Oleksiy Sorokin recently wrote on Twitter: “I can feel how the whole country is awaiting good news from Kherson Oblast, checking the news every five minutes.” The Russians, meanwhile, are playing down the Ukrainian attacks. Russian media has reported that there is neither electricity nor water in Kherson – though they insist that has nothing to do with the alleged Ukrainian offensive, but with an incident at an electrical station under Russian control.
Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar has urged her compatriots to refrain from speculating about military operations. “There is a main rule of information – the military are the first to talk about military operations, their progress, consequences, and results,” she wrote recently on social media. But in a war in which soldiers and civilians are equipped with mobile phones and social media accounts, it is almost impossible to completely cut off the flow of information.
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