With a flurry of rockets from American-made launchers, Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine attacked toward Russian-occupied Kherson on Monday.
Some analysts are calling the attack a “counteroffensive.” Kyiv since May has been signaling its intentions to liberate Kherson, a city of 300,000 on the Black Sea coast.
It’s unclear how far the Ukrainian battalions pushed. It’s unclear whether they can sustain their advances. Any offensive action is good news for Kyiv as Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds into its sixth month, but a local attack by a few battalions won’t defeat the Russian field army in Kherson Oblast—to say nothing of freeing and holding Kherson.
Monday’s attacks, which triggered fires that are visible to satellites, might be the first phase of a wider Ukrainian counteroffensive that, with luck, could shift the war’s momentum in Kyiv’s favor. Then again, they might be little more than skirmishes. Time, and more information, will tell.
One thing is clear, however. If the Ukrainians plan to liberate Kherson this year, they need to get started. For one, autumn brings rain in Ukraine. Rain brings mud. Mud slows down trucks, tanks and infantry. It’s not for no reason that, traditionally, armies avoid large-scale operations in Ukraine in October and November—and instead wait for the ground to freeze around the New Year.
Perhaps more urgently, there are signs the Russians are deploying fresh troops to Ukraine. Thousands of them.
Reports of intensive Ukrainian rocket fire, targeting Russian positions along the Inhulets River northeast of Kherson, circulated Monday afternoon, Ukraine time. The Ukrainian army has concentrated much of its best artillery and rockets—including some of its 16 U.S.-made High-Mobility Rocket Artillery Systems—in the south.
Ukrainian battalions, some of which since May have held a small lodgement on the Kherson side of the Inhulets, reportedly advanced against units of the 49th Combined Arms Army, which oversees most of the roughly three dozen Russian battalions in and around Kherson.
The Ukrainian government quickly celebrated a tactical victory. “The armed forces of Ukraine have breached the occupiers’ first line of defense near Kherson,” the Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security in Kyiv stated. “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.”
But there’s no independent proof of a significant Ukrainian advance. And it’s worth noting that both sides in the six-month-old war recently have announced supposed offensive operations in the south—or plans for them, at least—without ever actually attacking.
If some of the roughly 15 Ukrainian brigades in the south, together overseeing potentially three dozen battalions, indeed have gained ground, the evidence—photos, videos, clear satellite imagery—should be forthcoming.
To be fair to the Ukrainians, there have been plenty of hints that something big was in the works. After forcing its way across the Inhulets back in May, the Ukrainian army’s southern command shifted to shaping operations, firing rockets and artillery and launching drone strikes in order to destroy Russian supply dumps and airfields and sever rail lines and bridges leading into Kherson.
That campaign of deep strikes, running in parallel with an intensive effort by the Ukrainian air force to suppress Russian air-defenses, undeniably has been successful. Kherson is surrounded by water. The Dnipro River to the south. The Inhulets to the northeast. After repeated successful Ukrainian strikes on the big spans, the only way into Kherson for the Russians now is a small number of temporary pontoon bridges.
Those deep strikes weren’t for nothing. Fearing a major Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Kremlin this month shifted forces from the Donbas region in the east to Kherson in the south, likely robbing the eastern units of the combat power they need for serious offensive operations of their own.
Which is not to say the Russians in the east haven’t been harrying Ukrainian forces. “There is a realistic possibility that Russia has increased its efforts in the Donbas in an attempt to draw in or fix additional Ukrainian units, amid speculation that Ukraine is planning a major counteroffensive,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.
But these fixing attacks aren’t too serious. Friday was the first day in nearly two weeks that the Russian army gained no ground in Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War in Washington noted.
The Russians however have scraped the proverbial barrel for additional reinforcements. Having buried or sent to hospitals as many as 80,000 troops since February, the Russian army this summer quickly recruited thousands of aging volunteers and formed the new 3rd Army Corps.
The new corps’ vehicles in recent days have been spotted on trains, apparently en route to Ukraine. There’s been speculation that Kyiv timed a southern counteroffensive to begin before the 3rd AC arrives.
In that case, Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive must launch soon, if it hasn’t already. An imminent big influx of fresh Russian troops represents an even more immediate deadline than the coming mud.