Less than 40 kilometers. That is the distance between the main reserve of Ukrainian troops in the south of the country, in Mykolayiv, and the capital of the oblast (province) of Kherson – the first major city that fell into Russian hands, in early March. Ukrainian troops are motivated and think they will be able to free Kherson in six weeks, before the Ukrainian plains start to freeze. But this will come at a very high cost.
If Ukraine retakes Kherson, it will have one of its biggest battlefield victories so far. In September, President Vladimir Putin said that the inhabitants of this and three other annexed regions are now Russians forever.
In Mykolayiv, I have had contact with Ukrainian military personnel who say they are optimistic about a rapid advance. But that doesn’t mean they think the task is easy. In one of their last missions, they lost 25 men from an initial group of 50. They do not give interviews for fear of reprisals to their families by Russian agents. They say they are motivated to fight in Kherson, despite being over a month behind on pay.
Western military analysts also say Ukraine is in a position to retake Kherson before winter. The city was quickly invaded by Russian troops who were in Crimea on the first day of the war, in 24 February. The Ukrainians then launched a counterattack and retook most of the oblast capital. But the Russians continued to advance and the city capitulated on March 2.
It has a peculiar geographical feature: it is the only invaded city located west of the Dnipro River, which practically cuts the country in half, from north to south. The Ukrainians managed to render the two main bridges over this river in the region unusable. For this, they used high mobility rocket launchers (Himars), supplied by the United States – the weapon that is making a difference in the war for now.
Thus, the Russians are having to use ferries to cross the thousand meters wide river, carrying food, ammunition and weapons for his troops. This slows down the work and the amount of resources transported ends up being less.
The Russians set up at least three lines of defense of the city, with trenches and heavy weapons. One is the front line itself, where Ukrainian and Russian troops are making contact in the countryside. If that line falls, the Russians can retreat to the second line, set up near the outskirts of the city. The third and last line would be practically inside Kherson, according to Western intelligence information.
But there is another scenario that is being considered by American analysts and the Ukrainian Armed Forces: a strategic withdrawal of the Russians to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River – abandoning Kherson to Ukrainian forces.
The possibility of realizing this scenario has been gaining strength after Russia began to withdraw 60 a thousand civilians, part of the city’s civilian population, and after General Segei Surovikin, commander of the Russian invasion forces, gave an interview on his country’s TV.
“Our next actions and plans regarding the city of Kherson will depend on the tactical-military situation at the time. I will say it again: today the situation is already very difficult”, said Surovikin on Tuesday (18).
Western analysts interpreted the statement as an attempt to prepare the Russian public for the news of the withdrawal of Kherson’s forces.
From a military point of view, this decision would be adequate to spare soldiers’ lives. Russia could then try a new offensive in the region when it receives reinforcements. However, from a political point of view, a withdrawal at the moment would be catastrophic for the Kremlin.
In this context, an even more catastrophic scenario is being discussed in a true information war. Russia and Ukraine are accusing each other of having plans to blow up the Kharkovka hydroelectric dam. This action could cause massive flooding in Kherson and cause many deaths.
As Russia began the evacuation of approximately 60 1,000 residents of Kherson, Russia told them that the removal it was motivated precisely by the danger of the Ukrainians firing missiles at the dam. General Surovikin said that the Ukrainians would be ready to use “banned methods of war” to take Kherson.
The American think tank ISW (Instituto de Estudos de Guerra) stated that the Russians could blow up the dam for two purposes: blaming the Ukrainians and covering their retreat – preventing their troops from being pursued by withdrawing. According to the institution, the Kremlin had already started an offensive in the field of information to blame Ukraine for the attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directly accused Russia of having installed mines on the dam’s dike. and stated that its dynamiting would be a “large-scale disaster”. He urged the international community to urgently send observers to the dam.
There is an even more remote possibility that a defeat at Kherson will increase President Putin’s appetite for tactical nuclear weaponry (a nuclear bomb with a tenth or even half the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb). The purpose of such an action would be to try to end the war by betting on the surrender of Ukraine.
But a nuclear attack would also have a high cost for the Russian president: he would probably lose the support of countries like China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, as well as several African nations. Chinese and Indian economic support has given Russia markets for Russian oil products (the sale of which has been sanctioned by the West) and suppliers of products that the country can no longer buy from Europe and the United States.
Not to mention the reaction of the West, which can range from sending more weapons to Ukraine to direct involvement of NATO (Western military alliance) in the war.
But the Russian president needs to show strength internally. If he doesn’t, he starts to run the risk of losing his job.
However, it must be remembered that, despite being a very important strategic objective, Kherson will not decide the Ukraine war. Despite its symbolic value, even if the city is liberated, about 20% of Ukrainian territory will still remain in Russian hands.
While Kyiv struggles to retake Kherson, Russian forces continue to try to advance into Donbas, in the east of the country, and now appear to be turning towards the conquest of the capital of Zaporizhzhia.
1,000 additional troops that Putin has mobilized recently are slowly arriving on the battlefield – and there is no guarantee that the Russian president will not try to mobilize an even larger contingent in the coming months.
Analysts converge in saying that winter will temporarily paralyze most military maneuvers. Thus, bombings from both sides should continue, but it is unlikely that large parts of the territory will change hands in the cold months.
Therefore, Russia will have time to equip and train new recruits during the winter. and come back to attack the Ukrainians in the spring. In other words, Kherson can be freed, but the war still seems far from over.