After months spent playing defense in the face of its opponent’s larger, better-armed war machine, essentially trading space on the battlefield for time, Ukraine now seems poised to launch its first significant counteroffensive in its war of survival with Russia.
Ukrainian officials and private analysts say Kyiv’s main thrust appears to be focused on Kherson, a crucial city in southern Ukraine that was among the first to fall to the invading Russian forces in late February and has emerged as a key to the Kremlin’s efforts to tighten its hold on the southern and eastern edges of its neighbor.
With the war now in its sixth month, Ukraine has begun ramping up its attacks on the territory around Kherson, including bridges needed to resupply Russian troops, using its military hardware supplied by the U.S. and its allies, such as the long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The campaign could provide a major morale boost to the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which saw its initial victories in the war fade as Russian commanders switched to a grinding but effective war of attrition in the disputed Donbas region.
The counterattack could test the mettle of stretched Russian forces, which have lost a number of senior commanders and struggled to keep up force levels after the expected lightning invasion victory failed to materialize.
“I know [Ukraine is] making offensive gains, and they’re doing so against a Russian force that … looks like they are ill-prepared for it,” a senior military officer at the Pentagon told reporters on Friday. “The Ukrainians have become very effective in finding and killing Russian command and control [elements] and destroying large levels of Russian material.”
British military officials also said Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south appears to be gathering momentum. They said it’s “highly likely” that the country’s military forces have managed to establish a beachhead south of the Ingulets River near Kherson. The Russians are having trouble getting fresh supplies and reinforcements to the forces now holding the city.
SEE ALSO: Russia intensifies efforts to deport Ukrainians through ‘filtration centers,’ U.S. officials say
“Kherson city, the most politically-significant population center occupied by Russia, is now virtually cut off from the other occupied territories,” the U.K.’s Defense Ministry said in a Twitter message. “Its loss would severely undermine Russia’s attempt to paint the occupation as a success.”
Most of Russia’s military forces are still concentrated in the industrial Donetsk region in the east. The sprawling area has been the scene of bitter conflict for several years. By focusing its counterattacks in the south, Ukraine has forced Russia to thin out its line by moving forces needed to engage them.
“The Russian military command has been put before a dilemma: to try to press the offensive in the Donetsk region or build up defenses in the south,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told the Associated Press. “It’s going to be difficult for them to perform both tasks simultaneously for a long time.”
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a new analysis Sunday that Russian forces around Kherson were clearly digging in in expectation of a Ukrainian offensive, while trying to repair a key supply bridge badly damaged by Ukrainian missiles.
“Russian forces continued to undertake defensive measures in Kherson Oblast in preparation for a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the region,” the institute’s summary read in part. “… Satellite imagery also showed that Russian forces dug trenches near the Antonivskyi Bridge (on the right bank of the Dnipro River) and set up radar reflectors along both Antonivskyi road and railway bridges to prevent Ukrainian missile strikes.”
Ukraine’s defensive operations in the disputed Donbas region have kept Russian forces there at virtually a standstill, U.S. military officials said.
SEE ALSO: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy: Grain harvest could be halved by war with Russia
“We mentioned morale. We mentioned casualties. Those are certainly reasons that the Russians may have stopped,” a senior military official said.
In addition to its psychological impact on the fighting, retaking Kherson would provide an important tactical advantage to Kyiv. The Russians have used the city as a staging point for a number of attacks elsewhere in Ukraine.
On Monday, Pentagon officials announced another Presidential drawdown of security assistance for Ukraine. The U.S. will ship another 75,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition to Kyiv, along with an undisclosed number of additional rockets for the country’s HIMARS units. Including the $550 million in the latest package, the U.S. has committed almost $9 billion worth of military hardware to Ukraine since the start of the Biden administration.
Grain shipment departs
Separately, Ukrainian officials confirmed that the first ship carrying Ukrainian grain left the port of Odesa Monday under an internationally brokered deal to unblock the embattled country’s agricultural exports and ease the growing global food crisis. With both Russia and Ukraine among the world’s top grain and fertilizer exporters, the disruption caused by the war has sent world food prices soaring and unnerved developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni departed with over 26,000 tons of corn destined for Lebanon, the Associated Press reported, with ships bearing millions of more tons slated to depart under the deal. As part of the agreements, safe corridors through the mined waters outside Ukraine’s ports were established, the AP reported.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the ship’s launch as “very positive,” but Mr. Zelenskyy struck a more cautious note, warning, “We cannot have the illusions that Russia will simply refrain from trying to disrupt Ukrainian exports,” Zelenskyy said.
On Sunday, Mr. Zelenskyy confirmed the ongoing Russian troop movements to try to meet the expected Ukrainian thrust.
“The Russian army is trying to strengthen its positions in the occupied areas of the south of our country, increasing activity in the relevant areas. Part of the Russian forces from their positions in the east are moved to the south — to the Kherson region and the Zaporizhzhia region, but this will not help them there,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the nation. “None of the Russian strikes go unanswered by our military and intelligence officers. The armed forces of Ukraine are ready to respond to any new activity of the occupiers.”
The U.K.’s lead defense intelligence service said Russia appears to be “running out of steam” and, sooner rather than later, will need to refit and resupply its soldiers who have been hit hard in recent weeks.
“Our assessment is that the Russians will increasingly find it difficult to supply manpower and material over the next few weeks,” Richard Moore, chief of MI6, the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, said during last month’s Aspen Security Forum. “They will have to pause in some way and that will give the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike back.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin had three primary goals when he ordered the invasion of Ukraine: to remove President Zelenskyy from power; capture Kyiv and sow dissent within the NATO alliance, Mr. Moore said.
“On all of those, I think they count as ‘epic fails,’” he said. “It’s obviously not over. The Russian forces have made some incremental progress over recent weeks and months. But it’s tiny amounts. We’re talking about a small number of miles of advance.”
Ukraine has been expending large numbers of ammunition in its battle against the Russian occupiers but U.S. officials said they are monitoring the supply. The need will become more acute as Kyiv ramps up its offensive operations against the Kremlin’s troops.
“We are constantly checking in with the Ukrainians on where they are with their consumption rates because we want to make sure they have what they need on the battlefield,” a senior Defense Department official told Pentagon reporters. “We feel really confident in our security assistance processes to be able to continue to support them with their needs — and that’s not just HIMARS I’m talking about.”
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.