Ukraine is a country in need of a morale boost: in recent weeks, the country’s resistance against the Russian invasion has faded from the headlines amid Israel’s war against Hamas; a much-hyped counteroffensive has produced only incremental gains; and support in Washington appears to be flagging.
But bright news emerged this week, when President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said Ukrainian forces had “gained a foothold” on the left bank of the the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, marking a potentially significant advance for Ukraine through a natural defensive barrier for Russian forces.
Reports first emerged last month that Ukrainian troops had crossed the Dnipro into the Russian-occupied Kherson region, and pro-Kremlin military bloggers said Ukrainian forces were setting up positions around the village of Krynky, warning that Ukraine had the intention to establish a firm bridgehead across the river.
Ukraine had previously conducted cross-river raids in the region, but on a visit to Washington, Yermak made public that Ukrainian forces had established a sustained presence on the eastern bank of the Dnieper “against all odds,” according to a transcript released Tuesday. . by the Ukrainian presidential office.
It was good news after weeks of pessimistic headlines about Ukraine.
In a recent interview with The Economist, General Valery Zaluzhny acknowledged that Ukrainian forces had failed to make a significant breakthrough into the layered Russian defensive lines. Comparing the current situation with an analysis of the battles of the First World War, Zaluzhnyi said: “just as then, the level of our current technological development has put us and our enemies in a stupor.”
Ukraine launched a broad counteroffensive along front lines in the east and south of the country earlier this summer, but made only gradual gains and regained relatively small settlements.
Ukraine’s advances were slowed by minefields and fortifications that Russia had prepared months in advance; While Ukraine has successfully attacked Russian warships stationed in the Black Sea and launched headline-grabbing drone strikes deep inside Russian territory (operations that Kiev generally comments on), the front lines have been kept relatively static.
Frustrated expectations surrounding the Ukrainian counteroffensive contrasted with the dramatic advances in the Kherson region just a year ago, when Russia was forced to withdraw across the Dnieper. The liberation of Kherson was a landmark moment for Ukraine, but the city of Kherson and the surrounding region suffered relentless shelling by Russian forces across the river over the past year.
Over the past year, 409 people have been killed in the region by Russian bombing, including 10 children, according to the Kherson regional military administration. On Thursday, the Ukrainian government said Russian forces had fired a total of 531 projectiles into the region in the past 24 hours, 45 of them aimed at the city of Kherson, in what has become a grim routine for residents. local. One person was killed and another injured by shelling in the city of Kherson on Thursday morning.
Román Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images
Ukrainian forces near the Dnipro River. Russian forces control much of the opposing bank.
Pushing back Russian forces further in the Kherson region would potentially put more civilians out of range of enemy artillery and, in theory, give Kiev a launching point to advance further south into occupied Crimea. But Ukrainian advances on the left bank of the Dnieper are weak.
A pro-Ukrainian Telegram channel that closely follows military operations said Thursday that “several small footholds had to be abandoned” on the left bank of the Dnieper.
“The situation is absolutely normal,” the Telegram channel said, adding that part of the repositioning was aimed at attracting Russian forces and because some positions were too expensive or impractical to maintain.
CNN cannot authenticate that claim, but the US-based Institute for the Study of War, which analyzes open-source battlefield information, said Ukrainian forces have “continued larger-than-usual operations in the eastern (left) bank of the Kherson Oblast. on November 15.”
In the first official Russian acknowledgment of the Ukrainian advance, Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed governor of the occupied parts of the Kherson region, said on Wednesday that there was “justified concern about the presence of Ukrainian armed forces in the village of Krynky in the left bank”. of the Dnieper River,” but he added that additional Russian forces were being deployed to counter the Ukrainian forces.
“The enemy is blocked in Krynky, a hell of fire has been prepared for them: bombs, rockets, ammunition from heavy flamethrower systems, artillery shells and drones are fired at them,” he said.
But pro-Kremlin military bloggers also said Wednesday that the fight was not moving forward easily for Russia.
“Russian forces are trying to eliminate the main bridgehead of the AFU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) in Krynky with the support of all possible means of long-term defeat,” said one blogger. “At the moment, without success.”
CNN cannot independently verify such Russian claims about the situation on the Left Bank, and Ukrainian officials have revealed scant details of the ongoing operation. But the foothold across the Dnieper comes at a time when Ukraine needs to show its Western supporters that it is capable of maintaining momentum on the battlefield.
Those efforts received a boost on the diplomatic front on Thursday with the visit to Kiev of the United Kingdom’s new Foreign Secretary David Cameron, the former prime minister making his first official trip abroad since his shock appointment.
“Thank you for coming,” Zelensky said in statements to Cameron on Thursday, alluding to the multiple geopolitical crises that capture the attention of policymakers in Western capitals. “It’s very important. Now you know that the world is not focused on the situation on our battlefield and in Ukraine, and dividing the focus doesn’t really help.”
The UK has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s surprise visit to Kiev in April last year is still remembered in Ukraine as an important show of solidarity following the large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia.
“I had some disagreements with my friend Boris Johnson, but we have known each other for 40 years, and his support is the best thing he and his government did,” Cameron said.
But the Ukrainian government is aware of the fact that it is in a race against Russia to keep its troops supplied, particularly when it comes to replenishing stocks of artillery ammunition for what remains a tough and brutal front-line confrontation with Russia. particularly in the eastern Donbas region, where Russia has been pouring troops into a Ukrainian-controlled salient around the shattered city of Avdiivka.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Monday that Ukraine urgently needed the European Union to increase its capacity to supply ammunition to the Ukrainian military. Germany’s Defense Minister acknowledged this week that the EU will not meet its goal of supplying Ukraine with one million rounds of artillery ammunition.
“We need more and we need it faster,” Kuleba said. “We will push the EU, because Ukrainian foot soldiers need ammunition.”
However, it is an open question whether Ukraine’s Western allies can increase supplies quickly enough. Winter is approaching and Ukraine remains trapped in a costly friction war with Russia.