War in Ukraine: counter  offensive, troop movements… Why the conflict could end in a no

War in Ukraine: counter offensive, troop movements… Why the conflict could end in a no

Will the Southern War happen? In mid-July, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov promised “a force of a million men” to recapture the southern areas occupied by the Russian army. Almost a month later, the front line has changed little and no major counter-offensive has taken place. The city of Kherson, occupied by the Russians since the first days of the war, occupies a strategically important position: it is the only large city (280,000 inhabitants before the war) held by Moscow west of the Dnieper River, a kind of natural border cutting Ukraine in two.

For several days, the Ukrainian army has been attacking the Antonovsky Bridge in particular, which connects Kherson with the east bank of the Dnieper and whose importance is crucial for supplying the Russian occupying forces. In order to isolate the city, Ukraine also bombed a railway bridge very close to the first one and a road bridge to the north-east of the city over the Inhoulets River.

The Antonovsky Bridge, here July 21, 2022, is under attack by Ukrainian strikers to cut off the Russian-held city of Kherson from their supply line.  (STRINGERS/AFP)

The Antonovsky Bridge, here July 21, 2022, is under attack by Ukrainian strikers to cut off the Russian-held city of Kherson from their supply line. (STRINGERS/AFP)

“Ukraine wants to seize the opportunity to isolate Russian forces west of the Dnieper” in order to neutralize them, former general Dominique Trinquand analyzes for franceinfo. If successful, the Russian offensive would be driven back across the river, resulting in large numbers of prisoners and “devastating psychological effects on Russian forces”.

In early August, Kyiv announced that it had taken over about fifty small settlements, mostly located further north on the border of the Dnepropetrovsk region. These Ukrainian recaptures owe a lot to western Himars missile launchers, allowing them to destroy enemy ammunition depots and disrupt Russian supply chains. “It’s easier for the Ukrainians to reconquer territories in the south than in Donbass, especially since the expansion of Russian logistics lines is more important there,” estimates General Jérôme Pellistrandi, editor-in-chief of the National Defense Review, for franceinfo.

The military situation in southern Ukraine on August 9, 2022. (ELLEN LOZON / FRANCEINFO)

The military situation in southern Ukraine on August 9, 2022. (ELLEN LOZON / FRANCEINFO)

At this stage, however, a Ukrainian offensive in Kherson seems hypothetical. In a month, the front line has moved just two short kilometers towards the city, despite repeated announcements from Kyiv that a massive attack to retake the region’s capital is imminent. “The Ukrainians have not yet demonstrated their ability to gain the upper hand over the Russians,” Olivier Kempf, director of the strategic synthesis company La Vigie, told franceinfo as part of a major counter-offensive.

“This war has its own characteristics through cyber, drone and satellite observation means. As soon as a mechanized force is concentrated in one place, the enemy knows it immediately,” comments Olivier Kempf. The artillery balance of power takes precedence. However, “he seems well disposed towards the Russians, whatever one may say. This explains the successive withdrawals of the Ukrainians” in the east. Moreover, adds Jérôme Pellistrandi, “the Ukrainian armed forces have so far been in a defensive position”, in Mariupol or Severodonetsk. This time they would have to “reverse the balance of power” in terms of numbers.

Russian forces are trying to hold their positions in the south for the time being. They appear to “capture the entire pocket of Kherson, bounded by the Inhoulets River to the north and by swamps and steppes to the south”, Olivier Kempf continues, with “a series of ditches to the extreme north”. Russian bombardments intensify in the Mykolaiv sector, where Ukrainian artillery is concentrated. Evidenced by the recent death in a bomb attack of Oleksiï Vadatoursky, owner of Ukraine’s main grain logistics company.

To incriminate Mykolaiv, 25,000 men are currently being transferred from Russia to southern Ukraine, according to British intelligence services, quoted by The Times (article in English). “The war enters a new phase”, warned on Twitter (in English) the British Ministry of Defense: “The heaviest fighting is moving towards an approximately 350 km long front line stretching between the Zaporizhia sector and Kherson parallel to the Dnieper.”

Ukrainian artillerymen check their equipment before heading out on the front line between Mykolaiv and Kherson, Ukraine, July 15, 2022.  (METIN AKTAS / ANADOLU AGENCY)

Ukrainian artillerymen check their equipment before heading out on the front line between Mykolaiv and Kherson, Ukraine, July 15, 2022. (METIN AKTAS / ANADOLU AGENCY)

How are these troop movements to be interpreted? “This shows the importance that the Russians attach to this Ukrainian counter-offensive,” Dominique Trinquand analyses. “The maintenance of a beachhead west of the Dnieper is a harbinger of the continuation of operations for the Russians who want to continue their advance towards Odessa.” Western secret service statements must be taken “with tweezers,” Nuance for his part, Olivier Kempf.

“After phase A, the attack on Kyiv, and phase B, in which the Russians focused on the Luhansk salient [dans le Donbass]everyone is wondering about the next step.”

Olivier Kempf, director of the La Vigie company

at franceinfo

According to him, there are two hypotheses on the table on the Russian side. The first: “To protect against a possible Ukrainian offensive”. The second: “Restart action on the Kherson side to take Mykolaiv” or at least “pull back the front line to keep Ukrainian long-range artillery out of range of Kherson”. Only the future will reveal Moscow’s intentions. Meanwhile, regional governor Vitaliy Kim has ruled out evacuating Mykolaiv and its 450,000 residents. “If the Russians go ahead, we will think about it,” he said.

The situation in the neighboring oblast is also a cause for serious concern. The administrative capital of Zaporizhia is still in Ukrainian hands, but since the beginning of the war Russian troops have controlled the Enerhodar nuclear power plant on the south bank of the Dnieper. Since the beginning of August, Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of having carried out strikes near the site.

Russian military vehicles enter the site of the Enerhodar nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine, May 1, 2022.  (ANDREY BORODULIN / AFP)

Russian military vehicles enter the site of the Enerhodar nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine, May 1, 2022. (ANDREY BORODULIN / AFP)

Melitopol, further south, functions as the unofficial capital of the occupiers. In early August, “most of the occupiers’ air defenses were transferred from Melitopol to Kherson,” according to the city’s legitimate Ukrainian mayor Ivan Fedorov, who confirms the hypothesis of strategic redistributions. According to the Institute for the Study of War, an American think tank that produces daily summaries, “Russian forces would continue to neglect the front line of Zaporizhia Oblast in favor of efforts” in areas where fighting is more fierce.

“It happens that the Russians regularly gather forces in the Zaporizhia direction, and then transfer them to Donetsk or Kherson.”

Military Administration of Zaporizhia Oblast

on telegram

The Russian military presence is urging Kyiv to keep up the pressure on Melitopol. In a message published on Telegram (link in Ukrainian) on August 8, Mayor Ivan Fedorov confirms that the Ukrainian army has attacked several Russian positions on industrial sites. These attacks, conducted with American heavy artillery systems, he said, neutralized about a hundred soldiers and ammunition depots. For his part, the regional representative of the crew, Vladimir Rogov, assures (in Russian) that the Russian anti-aircraft defense repelled the Ukrainian attack.

The countdown has already started for the Ukrainian army. At the same time, Moscow is continuing to prepare referendums on the annexation of the Kherson and Zaporijia regions in order to integrate these areas into the Russian Federation. These elections are scheduled for the fall (Kherson occupation authorities are promoting 9/11). They run the risk of freezing territorial power relations for a long time. If these referendums are held and they agree to the annexation (which there is little doubt about since Moscow has full control of the polls), the Kremlin will consider these areas fully Russian. Any attack could, at least in theory, expose the Ukrainian army to a nuclear response.

In Kherson and Zaporizhia, the occupation authorities are already multiplying “Russification” measures (currency, telephone operators, passports, etc.). “The Russians have an interest in annexing these areas very quickly in order to ratify this status. Then it will be extremely difficult for the Ukrainians to retake them,” comments Dominique Trinquand.

>> War in Ukraine: How the Russian occupiers are trying to take control of the Zaporizhia region on the administrative front

Unlike in the Donbass, resistance networks now seem to be organizing in the south. Several occupation leaders have already borne the brunt of attacks carried out by “partisans”. Latest: Vitaly Gura, deputy chief of administration of the occupied city of Novaya Kakhovka, died of his injuries after being attacked outside his home on the morning of August 6. Additionally, an organization called “Yellow Ribbon” claims to have distributed 1,200 fanzines in Kherson promising bounties for capturing Russian enemies or equipment.

One organization claims to have distributed over a thousand copies of a fanzine calling for Ukrainian resistance to the Russians in Kherson, Ukraine.  (YELLOW BAND)

One organization claims to have distributed over a thousand copies of a fanzine calling for Ukrainian resistance to the Russians in Kherson, Ukraine. (YELLOW BAND)

“There are still two useful months of fighting before there is a stalemate in the autumn and winter,” said Jérôme Pellistrandi. “If the Ukrainians manage to reconquer the Dnieper, they will protect part of their territory. Otherwise it will start again next year.” This indicates, at least in the short term, a worsening of the situation along the lines of Donbass since 2014, with a frozen front line and sporadic gunfire on both sides. “Given the current progress in terms of kilometers or hectometres”, adds Olivier Kempf, “both camps seem to have been exhausted”.