The war with Russia enters a new phase as Ukraine prepares the southern counterstrike

The war with Russia enters a new phase as Ukraine prepares the southern counterstrike

After months of painfully slow progress by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, the focus of the war is shifting south, where a potentially pivotal phase of the conflict will play out.

Ukraine has deployed long-range artillery and missile systems, including the American M142 Himars, to halt Russia’s attritional advance to the east, destroying ammunition depots, command and control centers and air defense systems that appear to have limited Moscow’s ability to deliver to its front lines. Now Ukraine says it is launching a counteroffensive with the help of these western weapons to retake the southern port city of Kherson.

Russia continued its bombing of cities across Ukraine, including in the early hours of Sunday when it launched an attack on the port of Mykolayiv, killing a prominent businessman. But for Ukraine, Kherson is an important strategic target as it is the largest population center occupied by the Russians and the first city to fall. As a port, it is economically important to Ukrainians and its recapture would deny Russian forces access to the southern coast towards Odessa.

Mick Ryan, a military strategist and retired Australian Army major general, said the offensive will force Russia to make tough decisions about keeping troops in Donbass or moving them south to protect Kherson.

If the Ukrainians retake the city, they may be able to threaten Russia’s main Black Sea naval base, 150 miles away in Sevastopol.

Ukraine’s efforts to retake Kherson represent a significant development in the conflict, Gen. Ryan said. “If the Ukrainians can take that back, it will be a turning point,” he said. “But we’re not at a tipping point yet.”

The war with Russia enters a new phase as Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers fire a 155mm shell from a western-supplied M777 howitzer at a Russian military position in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region on July 23.

Photo: Joseph Syvenkyj for the Wall Street Journal

Eliot Cohen, a military historian and strategist with the nonpartisan political research group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Kherson has great symbolic importance.

“Taking back the original city, which the Russians initially took without much effort, would be very significant psychologically,” he said. It would be a bigger deal than Ukraine’s retaking of Snake Island in June or the sinking of Russia’s flagship, the Moskva, in April.

Military offensives are more demanding than defensive operations. Analysts warn that Ukraine should not – and probably will not – engage in combat in the south because it must continue to hold off Russian advances in the east. But demonstrating that it can gain ground in the south would bring a major victory for Ukrainian morale and show its supporters, particularly those in Europe, that their support on the ground gets results.

However, if Ukraine’s push to expel the Russians from Kherson fails or falters, it could weaken support for Kiev’s struggle in some western capitals. Ukrainians are likely to keep fighting no matter what, but an unsuccessful campaign could lead to further calls for a negotiated settlement, particularly from parts of Western Europe facing reduced Russian natural gas flows.

US officials say Ukrainian forces are advancing in the south, and public assessments by British Defense Intelligence suggest the counteroffensive in Kherson is gaining momentum. British intelligence said Thursday that Ukrainian forces are likely to have established a beachhead south of the Ingulets River, which forms the northern border of the Kherson region, and damaged at least three bridges that Russia is using to deliver supplies to the area. One of them – the 1,100-meter-long Antonivsky Bridge near the city of Kherson – is now probably unusable.

This has exposed Russia’s 49th Army, stationed on the west bank of the Dnipro River, and cut off the city of Kherson from other occupied territories, British intelligence said. On Saturday, they said Russian forces most likely constructed two pontoon bridges and a ferry system to offset the bridge damage.

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A road bridge over the Dnipro River was damaged by Ukrainian missiles on July 20.

Photo: Sergei Bobylev/WAASS/Zuma Press

This phase of the war will look different from the first, when Moscow tried unsuccessfully to attack Kyiv and overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the second, which continues in the east, where grueling artillery barrages have yielded modest benefits for Russian forces at high cost.

Mr Cohen says this phase will likely have parallels to what happened in the final year of World War I, when the Germans on one side and the British and Australians on the other tried to “break in” beyond the front lines, exploiting weakness and forces infiltrate.

This requires “meticulously planned operations that take bite after bite from the enemy’s front lines. And then move the artillery forward, solidify your position, let them counter if they want, and then take another bite,” he said.

Analysts point out that this phase will not depend solely on artillery. Konrad Muzyka, president of Rochan Consulting, military analysts based in Gdansk, Poland, said: “Himars cripple Russia’s ability to conduct offensive operations, but they will not force the Russians to leave Ukraine. You need manpower and armor for that.”

That brings with it the great unknown: “We don’t know the structure of the Ukrainian army, we don’t know its troop strength or its morale,” he said. Ukraine has lost thousands of soldiers and many good leaders in recent months.

Chris Dougherty, a former US Department of Defense strategist now at the Center for a New American Security, said despite all the material Western Ukraine has given, it probably still lacks the equipment and trained forces to be successful and regaining ground quickly.

“I worry that we are giving Ukrainians advanced equipment and they are using it to stop the bleeding,” he said. “That makes sense if you’re bleeding to death. But what do you do next?” He said Russia has not been able to capitalize on its massive artillery barrages to gain any significant ground and that Ukraine risks falling into the same trap.

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Ukrainian soldiers at the front near Izyum.

Photo: Manu Brabo for The Wall Street Journal

Mr Dougherty said he doubts Ukrainian forces can gain a foothold in the east, where Russian forces are well entrenched, but believes they can do so near Kherson or other areas in the south where partisan operations are already being carried out by Russian forces hit targets.

“You have to make sure the Russians can’t quickly reinforce from another area,” he said. “And the Ukrainians have to make sure they use what they have – partisans and intelligence in Kherson.”

“Ukrainians need to find a way to hit weak spots in the Russian line and hit them at the back of their line. Nothing panics an army like knowing their line will be hit in the back,” he said.

Some military analysts said amid Western military resources and equipment, economic aid, and critical intelligence assessments of Russian military movements, the balance in the South is shifting to Ukrainians.

Russia has already killed and injured tens of thousands of soldiers in its efforts so far, and analysts suspect many units are on the brink of exhaustion. You will be on the lookout for signs that the Russian army is crumbling and for signs of mutiny, desertion, refusal to fight and surrender. Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the Russian economy is suffering from Western-led sanctions.

“In my opinion, the momentum is starting to swing to the Ukrainians,” Mr. Cohen said. “Unpredictable things happen in war. People make mistakes. All of this… Nothing is a certainty. But would I rather have the Ukrainian hand or the Russian hand to play with right now? I’d rather have the Ukrainian hand, provided the West keeps pouring in military support and some economic support.”

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Members of the Russian Navy patrol in front of a headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

write to Stephen Fidler at [email protected] and Daniel Michaels at [email protected]

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