Ukraine appears to have launched a major new offensive against Russian-occupied territory around Kherson, a strategically critical city near Crimea, in one of the first major tests of Kyiv’s ability to gain an edge in the burgeoning stalemate as Moscow’s own military shortcomings mount.
The offensive to retake Kherson, the regional capital, began with long-range artillery strikes using U.S.-supplied HIMARS precision satellite-guided rocket systems to attack Russian strongholds but also against positions and formations of pro-Russian troops at the front, marking a shift in Ukraine’s recent tactics. Reports emerged almost immediately late Monday local time that elements of those forces were abandoning their posts and retreating.
Several officials in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s confirmed the offensive, which analysts had predicted in recent days following heightened shelling against Russian military installations there, particularly Sunday evening.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy shared a message through one of its social media outlets saying that Ukrainian forces had breached Russia’s first line of defense near Kherson.
“They believe that Ukraine has a real chance to get back its occupied territories, especially considering the very successful use of Western weapons by the Ukrainian army,” the ministry said.
The move amounts to a major strategic shift for Ukraine. Going on the offensive at all represents a new sense of confidence in Kyiv, armed with growing shipments of Western-backed weapons and other military aid. Russia, meanwhile, continues to reel from massive casualties among its forces as the Kremlin produces few answers for bolstering its front-line troops. Among its premier forces in Kherson, for example, is the militia belonging to the pro-Kremlin government in Donetsk, one of the two oblasts composing the Donbas, the center of Russian-backed fighting in Ukraine since 2014.
And retaking territory at Kherson on the banks of the Dnipro River, which bisects the country, would grant forces loyal to Kyiv greater ability to launch airstrikes at Crimea, the peninsula Russia first annexed in 2014 that serves as a critical link for military logistics from its mainland.
Ukraine could also expand success in a ground campaign to impose further damage on Russia’s navy, one of the critical advantages for the Kremlin in the country’s south. Kyiv can also field Western-supplied anti-ship weapons and underwater drones to threaten Russian naval positions and its key seaborne supply lines, observes Mark Hertling, the former top officer for U.S. Army operations in Europe.
“Without a Navy, Ukraine is conducting A+ Joint warfare,” Hertling wrote on Twitter.
A U.S. military official speaking on the condition of anonymity would not confirm that a new Ukrainian counteroffensive had begun but did confirm an “uptick in kinetic activity over the past few days, including artillery and rockets.”
“They have been making some small advances in and around the Kherson pocket for a while,” the official said. “I don’t want to mislead you here and tell you I don’t think the offensive is underway.”
“We have seen some offensive action in that area in recent weeks.”
Regardless of the circumstances of the latest offensive, the fact that Zelenskyy’s government has survived this long defied Western assessments immediately after Russia’s invasion that Kyiv would fall within days. More than six months later, news reports instead have focused on recent damning blows against Russia’s offensive, following battlefield retreats, embarrassing strategic failures and most recently a series of mysterious explosions at its military facilities in what it had previously considered safe havens in Crimea.
Russia on Monday appeared to dramatically escalate its information warfare around the time the offensive began. In keeping with traditional propaganda tactics, it pushed through state-controlled media posts claiming the existence of pro-Ukraine neo-Nazi drug facilities in Kherson, that new polling supposedly shows local residents would rather become a part of Russia than Ukraine, and even denials from pro-Kremlin political leaders in the area that a Ukrainian counteroffensive was taking place at all.
The Kremlin has ramped up its efforts in recent weeks to bolster the legitimacy of the unprovoked invasion President Vladimir Putin first ordered six months ago under the auspices of protecting Russia against a government in Kyiv he says poses a direct threat to Russian citizens. Analysts believe the moves also serve as an attempt to cover for its increasing inability to field an effective military force.
Indeed, Russia appeared to maneuver equipment around Kherson “to create the illusion of reinforcements in the region,” according to the Institute for the Study of War, which has tracked Russian military movements since the invasion began, citing the Ukrainian Center of Countering Disinformation.
The Ukrainian government, however, seized news of the offensive to demonstrate other ways in which it feels emboldened. Though Zelenskyy had previously said he would be willing to sit down with Putin to negotiate, in recent days he has struck a more defiant tone.
“Today, the only possible option for negotiations with Russia is being conducted by a special Ukrainian delegation in the southern and other directions of the frontline,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Zelenskyy and a member of Ukraine’s negotiation team, wrote in a coy post on Twitter.
“‘Negotiations’ are going well,” Podolyak added. “We expect new ‘compromises’ in the form of ‘gestures of goodwill.’”