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Putin Won’t Like This: Could Ukraine Really Take Back Kherson?

U.S. Marines with 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, fire a M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), a truck mounted multiple-rocket launcher system, during exercise Steel Knight at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 13, 2012. The battalion conducted this historic live-fire exercise, simultaneously utilizing HIMARS, M777 Lightweight Howitzer and Expeditionary Fire Support System. This is the first time all three artillery weapons systems were fired during the same exercise. (DoD photo by LCpl Joseph Scanlan, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Rumors of Ukrainian Kherson Counteroffensive Swirl, but Future Offensive Not Guaranteed – In recent days and weeks, outside observers have begun to seize on growing rumors that a Ukrainian counteroffensive around the southern city of Kherson is imminent. As arguably the most major Ukrainian city which has fallen under Russian control over the course of its invasion, Kherson would be a major prize for Ukrainian forces to retake.

However, it is unclear if Ukraine would be able to sustain an offensive to take the city or if it has the reserves available for such an operation.

What Signs of a Ukrainian Counteroffensive Exist?

One of the most visible signs that Kyiv could be preparing a counteroffensive towards the regional capital is a series of strikes on the three bridges which Russian forces rely on to bring supplies and materiel to their troops fighting to the west and north of the city.

Kherson is geographically hemmed in by the Dnieper and Inhulets rivers, which all Russian reinforcements and supplies must cross on their way to the front.

According to Kirill Stremousov, the head of Russia’s occupation authorities in the Kherson region, the critical Antonivskyi Bridge over the Dnieper remained standing after the strikes, but had sustained damage and had to be closed to vehicles and pedestrians alike.

After previous strikes, the UK Ministry of Defence claimed that the Russian armed forces could seek to build pontoon bridges across the river to compensate for the loss of other bridge infrastructure, but this has not been confirmed for certain.

On the battlefield, Ukraine has stepped up its attacks on Russian lines in the environs of Kherson. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed that Ukrainian troops have advanced “step by step” on the way to Kherson.

On July 10, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk implored residents of Kherson to evacuate the region as soon as possible ahead of a planned counter-attack, a clear statement of Ukraine’s intent to push forward in the region. Serhiy Khlan, an advisor to the head of the Kherson region, even went as far to promise in a Ukrainian TV interview that “the Kherson region will definitely be liberated by September.”

According to the Institute for the Study of War’s July 26 report on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian troops have recently struck Russian ammunition depots and troop concentrations with high frequency in the Kherson region.

It also highlighted claims by Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command that Russian forces had failed in an attempted counterattack of their own on the northern approaches to Kherson.

What Does Russia’s Occupation of Kherson Look Like?

As one of the first cities to fall in Ukraine at the beginning of the war, Russia’s occupation of the city and its surrounding areas has had time to put down some roots.

The city of Kherson was first seized by Russian troops on March 3, a defeat which was partially blamed on the then-head of Ukraine’s SBU, who was faulted for not preemptively destroying bridges over the Dnieper (which Ukraine is attacking today) in order to halt Russia’s advance in the early moments of the invasion.

By all accounts, Russia seeks to tighten its grip over the city and the surrounding Kherson Oblast, even by annexing it into Russia.

Russia’s Stremousov has spoken publicly about his administration’s intention to hold a “referendum” on the region’s hypothetical secession from Ukraine and annexation by Russia.

In the months following Russia’s seizure of the city, Moscow’s occupation authorities introduced the ruble as the legal tender of the occupied territory, and have begun distributing Russian passports to the population, mirroring prior tactics in Crimea, Donbas, Moldova’s Transnistria, and the occupied regions of Georgia.

What are the Future Prospects of the Offensive?

As Russian and Ukrainian forces trade territory around Kherson, it is clear pressure is building on the city and its defenses. While Kherson has not received the same priority in Russian allocation of manpower and equipment as the fighting in Donbas has, Ukraine would lose many of the advantages it enjoys as the defender in Russia’s invasion if it were to go on the offensive against Russian forces near Kherson.

Western weapons such as the HIMARS artillery system have enabled Ukrainian forces to stem Russian advances, and could help facilitate an advance on Kherson, but it is doubtful that they could enable a drive deeper into occupied Ukrainian territory to the southeast.

While Ukrainian military leaders have previously promised offensives towards Kherson that never materialized, Kyiv is likely positioning itself to attempt a renewed push at the city. Retaking Kherson would be both a strategic victory and a boost to Ukraine’s morale, which has thus far been unable to retake any major cities seized by the Russian invasion apart from towns in northern Ukraine and around Kyiv following Russia’s April withdrawal from the area.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.