Expert Analysis by Russia Scholar Wesley Culp: Despite Ukrainian claims of a forthcoming offensive towards the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, Ukraine’s forces have struggled to launch an offensive at a scale that threatens Russia’s grip on the city in the immediate future.
What is the Battle of Kherson, and Why Does it Matter?
Today, Kherson is the largest city to have been captured by Russian forces over the course of the invasion. Kherson, which is located near the mouth of the Dnieper River in Ukraine’s south, was seized by Russian forces on March 2, making it one of the first cities to fall over the course of Russia’s invasion which began on February 24. Kyiv attributed much of the blame for this defeat to the ineffective leadership of former SBU head Ivan Bakanov, whose missteps allegedly helped Russia quickly seize the city in the opening days of the war. Bakanov was subsequently removed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 17.
Since then, Russia’s occupation forces in the city have been focused on putting down roots in occupied Kherson and its environs. Russian state media has reported on how Russian-installed authorities in the region have begun issuing Russian citizenship, passports, drivers licenses, and vehicle registrations in Kherson Oblast, thereby integrating elements of the local population into the structure of the Russian government. While Russia has sought to portray this process as a surge of support for Russia’s occupation, it is more likely that such actions are intended to lay the groundwork for so-called “referendums” to take place in Kherson and other occupied regions of southern Ukraine to facilitate their annexation into Russia.
Kyiv is likely anxious to prevent Russia from tightening its grip on the occupied regions for any more time than it already has. Ahead of a promised offensive towards Kherson, Ukraine’s armed forces have struck a variety of bridges which connect Kherson and its surrounding Russian-controlled areas to the west with the rest of Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine over the past few weeks, which threatens to logistically challenge Russian forces operating there. Ukrainian forces have also conducted a series of strikes on Russian ammunition depots and staging points behind Russian lines to intensify the logistical challenges facing Russian troops. Despite Ukraine’s general refusal to claim or acknowledge any role in the August 9 strike on the Saki airbase near the Crimean town of Novofedorivka, two anonymous Ukrainian officials speaking to Politico even went as far as to say the strike was the signal of the start of a Ukrainian offensive towards Kherson.
Current State of the Kherson Offensive
However, despite the significant effort Ukraine has reportedly made to shape a possible future battlefield in or around Kherson to its advantage, Ukraine’s announced counteroffensive appears to be facing major headwinds. An August 14 report by The Economist highlighted that Ukraine’s window of opportunity for an offensive towards Kherson has likely passed, and that Ukrainian forces would be giving up many of the innate advantages of the defensive war they have fought to date, which could exhaust Ukraine’s fighting capability for some time. Ukrainian military leaders have noted that Russia has been repositioning forces from the fighting in Donbas to take part in the defense of Kherson in recent weeks, while some even speculated that Russia may try to make offensive actions of its own in the area.
While this offensive has not materialized either, Russia has likely built up sufficient forces to repulse any attempt at an offensive undertaken by the forces Ukraine currently has stationed in the area. According to the Institute for the Study of War’s August 14 report, Russian forces around Kherson include units from all over the Russian Armed Forces, including forces from the Eastern and Southern military districts, the Black Sea Fleet, Rosgvardia, and Russia’s Airborne Forces, a result of Russia’s rapid repositioning of forces to the area. However, while Ukrainian forces face significant obstacles which would threaten their chances of a successful offensive, Ukrainian strikes behind Russian lines with long range artillery systems such as HIMARS as well as guerilla and special forces attacks could tie down Russia’s attention enough to prevent Moscow from launching a renewed attack of its own along the lines near Kherson, and ensure that its occupation force remains perpetually unsettled. Ukrainian strikes on vital elements of Russia’s logistics system in and around Kherson could further constrain Russian forces.
While Ukraine may have been forced to reconsider the timeline of its counteroffensive towards Kherson because of Russia’s reinforcement of its positions around Kherson, a new stalemate threatens to set in around the city, where neither side is capable of breaking the defenses of the other. However, since Kherson would need to be held by either side if they were to convincingly declare victory, it is unlikely that the latest Ukrainian counteroffensive attempt towards the city will be its last.
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.
August 18, 2022 at 7:43 pm
The supposed counteroffensive is just that: Talk. They have been trying for months without any significant progress. P.S.
The largest city captured to date is Mariupol with a pre-war population of over 400’000 while Kherson is below 300’000.
August 18, 2022 at 7:44 pm
It is high time Putin ends this clusterf%#k, as it’s obvious his military cannot advance much further, let alone take Odessa. Ukrainians are bombing his Crimean bases into oblivion for f%#k’s sake, it’s over.
August 18, 2022 at 8:36 pm
Does Bubby miss his massive tank battalion offensives over the plains of Ukraine? The photogenic ones we were promised? Where is my WWII reprise? That’d be nice, but maybe Ukraine is playing a smarter game, and not throwing away troops and armor.
August 19, 2022 at 12:03 am
Here’s another question: Why are Germany and France not taking the lead here. The USA taxpayers have, once again, been demanded to pay for Europe’s wars.
Seriously, we should just simply boot Germany and maybe France out of NATO. When President Trump threatened to not defend Germany in case of a Russian attack, everyone was aghast. But he was right. Germany is dead weight.
Poland should just give a corridor to Putin so he could invade Germany. See how long they last. Putin would be in Berlin in 48 hours. AND…it would serve Germany right.
August 19, 2022 at 8:00 am
Maybe the author should learn a bit about tactics… Ukrainians’ tactics are to strangle the Russian force on the right bank by depriving them of ammo and fuel. The bridges are down and there will be no resupply. You can take it from there.
August 19, 2022 at 11:12 am
If Ukraine were going to make a counter-offensive, she wouldn’t announce it, what I think she is doing is something Portugal did in 1762 when he defeated the armies of Spain and France together, without fighting…
For this, it is necessary to give time to time, and the defeat of the invader is inevitable.
Neil Ross Hutchings
August 19, 2022 at 11:25 am
There are still ferries available to supply Russian troops on the right bank. Also, given the location of the front it appears that Russia may have wisely positioned its artillery on the left bank. Still the major question in my mind is how Russia so quickly overcame Ukraine’s defences north of Crimea at the start of the conflict. I have found one reference to a naval assault east of the main connection point but really no other information why Ukraine’s defensive positions were so quickly overrun.
August 19, 2022 at 12:59 pm
Cutting the Russian supply lines is just the first step. Until the Russian forces face shortages, the second step of surrounding them can’t take place.
Ukrainians should not make the Russian mistake of an armored frontal assault. Even though the Russians are poorly supplied with smart weapons, being strategically offensive (cut supply lines) while being tactically defensive (Javelin ambushes, laser guided indirect fires from Excalibur, HIMARS, etc.) will save lives and bring victory.
Ukraine should avoid manpower intensive urban door to door fighting. Forcing a surrender of Kherson without losing many soldiers will pay off in future surrenders. Publicizing good treatment of POW’s will do more to win the war, than tens of thousands of extra troops.
August 19, 2022 at 5:02 pm
Ukraine is using the Fabian strategy, and famous “Maskirovka”. They are not dumb to publicly announce place and time of a real offensive.