The Ukrainian Counteroffensive for Kherson

The only regional capital to be captured after 24 February is once again being contended for

31 August 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

With news of a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces to regain Kherson, Ukraine plans to improve its position on the battlefield before winter sets in.

The southern Ukrainian front is heating up as the Ukrainian army gathers forces and Western weapons to liberate their lands. In turn, Russians are regrouping and scrambling their demoralised troops to defend the Kherson region by all means, hoping to grab more territories before the upcoming winter season. Military experts are cautious in predicting the outcome and timeline of the much-awaited battle, but most agree that sooner or later, Ukraine will take back Kherson. 

Why has Kherson fallen so fast into the Kremlin’s hands? What is it like to live under Russian occupation? And why is the battle for the Kherson region a milestone in this vicious war?

Why Did Kherson Fall So Fast?

The Kherson region is in close proximity to Crimea and due to multiple warnings from various sources about the Russian invasion, President Volodimir Zelenskyy personally attended the military drills in the region on 12 February, in the run-up to the all-out war. 

The President’s aide Oleksiy Arestovich pointed out that the defence of the south was supposed to be one of the most successful. Because of its proximity to Crimea, the region has been under constant threat of Russian aggression since 2014 and was supposed to be ready. 

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All seemed set to repel the Russian invasion on the Southern lines. But, the only regional centre occupation that fell to the Russians was the Kherson region. Its swift fall invoked suspicions that the local authorities or law-enforcement agencies of collaborating with the enemy. 

Before the Russian offensive, bridges on the entirety of the Crimean isthmus, including the checkpoints of entry-departure Chonhar and Kalanckak, were demined, and all bridges remained intact. 

On the very first day of the war, law-enforcement workers left Kherson. All of their databases stored on hard disks were not erased and fell into the occupants’ hands, who harassed and abducted war veterans, activists, journalists and officials. 

The central figures who have supported the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) are the ex-Mayor of Kherson Volodymyr Saldo and Kiril Stremousov. The first is an influential businessman and pro-Russian politician, and the latter is a blogger tightly connected with Russian radical nationalistic movements. Together these two agents of the Kremlin were pushing Russian narratives and preparing the ideological soil for the invasion. 

However, another side of the story is that right before the invasion, the assistant to the Head of the SBU Department in the Kherson region, Ihor Sadokhin, handed over a map of minefields to the occupiers and coordinated their aviation strikes. 

The revealed positions of minefields opened all doors to the Russian troops from Crimea to advance deep into several directions and take Kherson in eight hours. The battle for the Antonivskiy bridge was brutal, and the Russians took control of it on 28 February. 

Quickly the occupiers invaded the large settlements of Nova Kakhovka, Henichesk, Skadovsk etc, paving the way to attack Mariupol, Zaporizhia, Dnipro and Mykolaiv. Besides potential treason from the Ukrainian side, militarily, the Russian forces outweighed the Ukrainians — 35,000 to 15,000. 

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov underlined that the major question of ‘who surrendered the city?’ is still a mystery that will be solved after the war ends and everyone who is guilty is punished.

The Strategic Importance of the Chornobaivka Region

President Zelenskyy pledged to win back the Kherson region before the winter came. The step-by-step counteroffensive is moving on, retaking village settlements and approaching the strategically crucial port city with huge agricultural potential. 

The Ukrainian army attacked several times with a highly-precision HIMARS system at one of the key supply bridges — the Antonivskiy bridge to cut Russia’s logistics to the city. Other key bridges (Dariivskyi, Railway, Kakhovskiy, Dmitryivskiy across the Ingulets river) are also inoperable, making it impossible for the Russians to resupply from Crimea or the east and make any substantial manoeuvres under Ukrainian fire. 

Moreover, the Ukrainian army destroyed Russian depots and command centres, forcing Russians to change plans as their combat readiness drastically degraded with each day whilst the Ukrainian soldiers prepared. 

Mykolaiv Governor, Vitaliy Kim, confirmed that the occupiers’ commands are fleeing to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes. UK intelligence reports that Kherson is cut off from other Russia-occupied territories after precise strikes on bridges. Russian positions were hit more than 20 times in Chornobaivka.

However, the strategic importance of Kherson compels Russia to hold this territory by any means necessary. According to various sources, the Kremlin recruits men to send to southern Ukraine without any proper training, including the 35th Combined Arms Army that committed war crimes in Bucha. 

Spokesperson of the defence forces of the south, Natalia Gumenyuk, confirms that the occupiers are preparing for their own counter-offensive as the enemy accumulates strength and pulls up reserves. The land bridge from Kherson to Crimea and its access to clean water is imperative for the Kremlin since the illegal annexation of the peninsula. 

Putin and pro-Russian forces inside Ukraine exploited this card to legitimise the defence of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea that severely lacked access to fresh water and accuse the Ukrainian authorities of ‘genocide.’ But according to international law, the occupier is solely responsible for providing all basic needs for the local population, including fresh water. 

If Russia holds Kherson, they can relentlessly attack Mykolaiv and then move on to Odesa to grab all of Ukraine’s ports and achieve a coveted landbridge to Transnistria. From Transnistria, Russian leverage over Moldova will increase significantly.

As of now, the occupiers hurry to repair the damaged bridges and use pontoons with barges to get supplies, which is time-consuming and will not help their defence considerably. If Ukrainians liberate Kherson, they can hit the Crimea bridge from better positions and even destroy the Russian fleet, which is stationed in Sevastopol and possibly move on to Crimea. 

Life Under Occupation

The nature of the Russian hybrid warfare is multifaceted and exploits various military and non-military tools (economic, legal, political) so as to expand not only its territories but also its influence at the global level. 

The main pretext for Putin’s wars is to supposedly defend the Russian-speaking population whose rights, to Putin’s mind, are repressed and establish the infamous Russian World. 

Historically, Ukraine has turned into the major target in the Kremlin’s hybrid playbook and the temporarily occupied territories have felt the ‘amenities’ of the occupation regime, reliving the worst nightmares of occupation under the Nazi regime or Stalin’s repressions. 

There are filtration camps, torture of activists or anyone whom the occupants do not like, rape, abductions, random searches, forced deportation to Russia, enforcement of the Russian language in the education system, replacement of Ukrainian elected officials, local authorities, the classic issue of Russian passports, destruction of cultural heritage, removal of Ukrainian symbols etc.

Black cars circle the city at night and abduct residents. The list of dirty Russian tactics goes on. For instance, the occupiers force Ukrainian doctors to sign documents to receive salaries in rubles. Those who refuse risk losing their jobs or worse. 

International humanitarian aid was blocked right after the occupation and now the locals severely suffer from the lack of basics — fresh water, food, hygiene products, medicines, gas and electricity. The invaders trade Russian humanitarian help for collecting personal data to be used in a fake referendum. 

The occupiers set astronomical prices for Russia-imported goods in shops, accepting only rubles or Russian credit cards. They also steal grain and other products to sell them in Crimea and even Belarus. 

A feature of Russian hybrid tactics is to repeat that the Ukrainian authorities are responsible for their suffering, and that the only ones who really care are the Russians. Ex-Crimean prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya personally distributed humanitarian aid to show ‘Russian kindness’ and create pictures for Russian propaganda. The invaders also spread leaflets to ‘stop resistance and get involved in the peaceful life of the city’ while Russia ‘is liberating them from the Kyiv regime.’ 

As Russian propaganda is the main tool in the Kremlin’s playbook, a TV tower was seized immediately, ending Ukrainian broadcasts and introducing Russian stations instead. Access to the internet is limited. Russian billboards around the city, saying ‘we are one people’ populate the city. Locals use every opportunity and access to VPNs to share information with journalists about the Russian occupation. 

The peak of Russian hybrid warfare is the conduct of a sham referendum to announce the Kherson People’s Republic or incorporate the region into Russia on the symbolic date of 11 September, both the day of the terrorist attack on New York and Moscow city day. 

Partisans constantly remind the invaders and collaborators that Kherson is Ukraine and soon it will be liberated by putting up anti-Russian posters, patriotic graffiti on public places and distributing newspapers. The topic of posters varies from how to make a Molotov cocktail to reminders that the Ukrainian army can see Kherson with binoculars. 

Massive peaceful demonstrations in the initial phase of the war were brutally cracked down upon by Russians who simply shot into the crowd of civilians with no weapons. The non-violent resistance of theYellow ribbon’ continues — Kherson residents put ribbons in the colour of the national flag on streets to support each other and repel the destruction of cultural identity by the invaders. 

The partisan movement, dubbed ‘the shadow army,’ also uses violent methods to cause chaos among the Russians — killing collaborators, blowing up their cars,  railways and giving precise coordinates of Russian positions to the Ukrainian army. 

Those who escape Kherson share grim stories about the occupation and how they are waiting for the Ukrainian army.

The Southern Battle

Military experts repeat the same mantra — if Ukrainians are provided with all the necessary sophisticated weapons, they will win before the winter, if not, it will be a war of attrition. 

HIMARS proved to be a game-changer on the battlefield but it is crucial to forming a combined-arms offensive with enough infantry, artillery, aviation and, more importantly, the commitment of the West to sustain all military needs for an aggressive breakthrough instead of a protracted one. 

A recent US aid package worth three billion dollars makes it possible to seize the initiative and serves as an example to the West to stay united for Ukraine’s victory. Zelenskyy’s Advisor Mikhailo Podolyak described the current tactics: ‘ You have to make small cuts in many places at the same time and bleed the Russian army.’

Offensive operations are much more delicate and complicated than defensive ones, considering the might of Russian artillery. 

The Ukrainian army surgically eliminates ammunition dumps not only in Kherson per se but also deep behind the front lines in Crimea, degrading Russian combat capabilities day by day. 

Nevertheless, the retaking of Kherson will not be easy, and Ukrainians are preparing for urban warfare. 

The Russian invaders cannot force the residents to vote ‘Yes’ in a sham referendum. The Ukrainian offensive compels Russians to look for excuses to postpone referendums, for instance, until the whole Donetsk region is captured. The prospects of such an endeavour are doubtful, to say the least. 

All attempts to accelerate the execution of an illegal referendum are signs of agony. Still, the Russians have time to surrender as an ‘act of good faith’ or suffer a Ukrainian siege — provided that all needed weapons are at hand. 

Putin’s wish to restore the Tavria province in his Novorossiya project has failed despite continued attempts to force people to vote.

Both sides are ready for ‘all or nothing.’ For Ukrainians, a victory in this offensive will be a huge morale boost and bring more West support. 

Ukraine desperately needs a victory before the upcoming winter stalemate to gain the upper hand at a possible negotiating table. Thus, a milestone in this war is approaching as all conditions are being set for it. 

The fierce battle for Kherson is the battle for the whole of southern Ukraine and can be the first stone in Russian total defeat.

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Picture: Ministry of Defense of UkraineAnti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine (War Ukraine) (26501713354), filter , CC BY-SA 2.0

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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