Push to retake Kherson is symbol of Ukraine’s cautious confidence

Fact that counterattack is happening at all brings hope that Russia can be held back in some areas before winter sets in

Ukraine declared this week it had begun a counteroffensive aiming to retake Kherson – the one city Russia holds west of the Dnieper River – prompting a fog of uncertainty to descend on how the effort was progressing, never mind whether it would succeed.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a key adviser to the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, stressed there would be “no quick wins” as the attack in the south began – a point reflected in a briefing on Friday by western officials.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said Ukraine had “pushed back” the Russian defenders in “several places”, but insisted it was too soon to name villages taken or distances gained while fighting was ongoing.

The caution may be realistic, but it is also telling. This is not, in any sense, a blitzkrieg or a broad front attack, but rather a localised effort to strike at the most obvious strategic vulnerability in the Russian frontline, and to try to demonstrate that Ukraine can drive the Russians back in places before winter sets in.

It is a struggle about Kyiv’s ability to act proactively as much as it is about recapturing the occupied city itself.

“The fact that Ukraine can mount it, has decided to mount it, is as you know very significant and shows a degree of confidence, which is encouraging,” one official added, arguing in effect that any switch to offensive from defensive on Kyiv’s part has to be considered significant, given what it has withstood so far.

Ukraine has been engaged in several weeks of preparatory activity. There have been repeated strikes at strategic bridges into Kherson and at munitions dumps and staging posts in the Russian rear, east of the Dnipro, in occupied Kherson and even in Crimea, using a mixture of western-supplied Himars (rocket launchers) and M270 rocket artillery, and daring behind-the-lines raids.

However, while these eye-catching attacks will degrade Russian logistics, they have also allowed time for reinforcements. The occupiers’ troop numbers west of the vast river have gone up from a few thousand to about 20,000, based on the latest western estimates. In other words, the supply lines have not yet been severed.

Ranged against them are likely to be a similar number of Ukrainian troops – although the conventional measure for military success is a superiority of three to one – all of which again suggests progress is likely to be difficult. “We’re advancing in some areas and being battered in others,” one wounded Ukrainian soldier told the Wall Street Journal from a hospital this week.

Mathieu Boulegue, an analyst from Chatham House, agrees it is too soon to judge, and even that initial progress by the attackers could be misleading. “Ukraine may be able to break through Russian defences and link up in such a way to win – but if they fail, the risk is it creates a cauldron, where Ukrainian forces are trapped into a bulge that the Russians can penetrate and collapse.”

Nevertheless, the fundamentals ought to favour Ukraine. Four already damaged bridges are key to resupplying Kherson, and while Russia has set up pontoon alternatives, Ukraine says it can hit them. A longer siege-type campaign may be enough to persuade the invaders they are wasting soldiers and resources trying to hang on, though there any many reasons for Russia not to concede.

It is obvious what the stakes are. If Russia can hold on, the Kremlin will feel it is in a strong place to consolidate all the gains it has made across Ukraine through its enforced Russification and sham referendums. The Kremlin will also feel it has damaged Kyiv’s political reputation in the process. Moscow wants the west to feel supplying Ukraine with modern weapons is not working, and for Ukraine’s population to tire of the fighting.

Nevertheless, for now, neither of these scenarios looks likely regardless of what happens on the battlefield. Ukrainian morale – and the desire to kick the Russians out – remains high. The supply of weapons by the west continues. Progress in retaking Kherson will demonstrate there may be a path to a Ukrainian military victory next year; if it does not, the war looks set to descend into a grim, protracted slog.


Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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