Ukraine’s Kherson win shifts dynamics across whole front with Russia | Mint

Ukraine’s Kherson win shifts dynamics across whole front with Russia

A Ukrainian soldier inspects a damaged Russian cannon in the retaken village Chornobaivka near Kherson. (Photo: AP)
A Ukrainian soldier inspects a damaged Russian cannon in the retaken village Chornobaivka near Kherson. (Photo: AP)

Summary

Recapturing southern city puts Kyiv’s forces in range to endanger Crimea’s supplies

Ukraine’s retaking of Kherson is rippling across battle fronts far afield, as Moscow redeploys troops to regain the initiative and Kyiv seeks to expand its recent advantage over invading Russian forces.

Russia’s retreat from Kherson, the only regional capital it gained in almost nine months of fighting, was an embarrassing setback, but Moscow appears to have safely withdrawn many of its best troops, enabling them to shift elsewhere, say military analysts.

Ukrainian troops, energized by recapturing the southern city with less bloodshed than many had predicted, have remained on the move by shelling Russian forces who left the city, while fending off a Russian offensive to the far northeast around the city of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that he had discussed fighting in that region with his top officials. “We are doing everything to help our heroes withstand Russian attacks," he said on Telegram.

Even if Kyiv’s forces don’t quickly gain more ground near Kherson, their recent advance there enables them to target Russian supply lines running to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. Russian military bases and civilians in Crimea rely on supplies and fresh water from the Ukrainian mainland running through territory now controlled by either Moscow or Kyiv.

Ukraine last month degraded Moscow’s ability to supply the peninsula when its forces damaged the Kerch Bridge with a fiery explosion. Moscow built the bridge in 2016 to connect Crimea directly to Russia. Now, most supplies must be delivered slowly by ship or via a single rail line snaking through southeast Ukraine, in Russian-controlled territory that could be in range of Kyiv’s artillery and drones.

The developments offer Ukraine a variety of options, allow it to press on several fronts and give it chances to capitalize on opportunities, say military strategists. Russian troops, in contrast, show signs of being disorganized and demoralized, based on social-media postings and other open-source intelligence.

“I think the Ukrainians should keep the pressure on the Russians to the extent they can" despite winter’s approach, said U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday. “It’s clear the Russian will to fight does not match the Ukrainian will to fight."

Ukrainian troops retook Kherson earlier this month after besieging it for more than two months largely thanks to precision artillery, such as the M142 Himars, supplied by the U.S. and other Western allies. Advancing through Kherson to the west bank of the Dnipro River, the troops can now extend by miles to the east and south their targeting of Russian positions and supply lines.

Ukraine is already shelling retreating Russian troops across the Dnipro and recently landed some special-forces troops across the wide river. Ukrainian officials haven’t detailed their military operations.

“If the Ukrainians cross the river in any number, I suspect a lot of Russians will keep running," as they did from Kherson, said Glen Grant, a retired British lieutenant colonel who has advised the Ukrainian military since 2014. “The more the Ukrainians can get across the river quickly, the better it will be for them" because of apparent Russian disarray in the area, he said.

Russia’s top general justified the withdrawal from Kherson as allowing the redeployment of troops to other areas. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a political priority of capturing Donbas, a traditionally Russian-speaking region, part of which Russian proxies overtook in 2014.

Those attacks around Bakhmut so far have achieved only small gains, observers say. Gen. Milley said Ukraine is fighting “a very, very successful mobile defense" in the area.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Friday that Russian forces near the border of Crimea and in Donbas were digging trenches, some roughly 40 miles behind front lines, “suggesting that Russian planners are making preparations in case of further major Ukrainian breakthroughs."

The situation in Donbas might shift as Russia moves more of its recently mobilized troops to the area or brings in soldiers from Kherson. During Ukraine’s two-month siege of the city, Russia appears to have withdrawn as many as 20,000 of its top troops there for redeployment and replaced them with recent conscripts, who were the last to retreat across the Dnipro.

“Russia has managed to preserve quite a lot of its best forces," said Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.

Still, he said, as a military target, Bakhmut makes very little sense and might draw resources from defending other areas.

Increasing numbers of Russian troops in Donbas could force Ukraine to deploy more of its own soldiers and weapons there, limiting its ability to attack elsewhere. Whether an expanded Russian presence can tip the balance back in Moscow’s favor remains unclear.

“One of the lessons of this war is it’s not about numbers, it’s about how you fight, and the Ukrainians have been better at that," Mr. Arnold said.

Hitting Crimea and Russian troops in Ukraine’s south might offer Kyiv options for pressing Russia using artillery, drones or troops.

One region Kyiv might target, say military analysts, is the land bridge along southern Ukraine, stretching west from Russia to the Dnipro. Ukrainian forces could try to sever this vital Russian link by driving south around the embattled city of Zaporizhzhia, they say. Such a move would strand Russian troops to the west and isolate forces in Crimea.

Crimea itself could provide a tempting target for Ukraine. Mr. Grant, who recently visited Ukraine, said the majority of Russian soldiers there aren’t trained fighting forces and the peninsula “is probably the weakest part" of Russia’s territory in Ukraine.

The canal supplying water to Crimea could become a Ukrainian target, but Kyiv might refrain from hitting it, said Mr. Arnold, because doing so would hurt the area’s civilian population in a way that Ukraine and the West have criticized Russia for doing with missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets. An outright invasion of Crimea is also more challenging than slowly choking it off, as Ukraine did to Russian forces in Kherson.

“There are pretty good options now for the Ukrainians to strangle Crimea" and keep control of fresh water as leverage, Mr. Arnold said.

Were Ukraine to try pressing Crimea, Washington has indicated it won’t intercede. The U.S. has implored Kyiv not to use Western-supplied weapons to attack Russian territory.

“Crimea is an issue to be thought through and sorted out by the Ukrainian leadership," said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week.

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