Ukraine tries to retake its southern territory from Russian forces

As the Russian war machine advanced through eastern Ukraine to try to achieve the Kremlin’s goal of controlling the country’s entire industrial heartland, Ukrainian forces stepped up attacks to retake territory in the south from Russian occupation.

The Ukrainians have used US-supplied rocket launchers to attack bridges and military infrastructure in the south, forcing Russia to divert its forces from Donbas in the east to counter the new threat.

The war in Ukraine is now in its sixth month, and the next few weeks could be decisive.

Although the bulk of both sides’ military assets are concentrated in Donbas, an industrial region of mines and factories, the two hope to make gains in other regions.

Ukraine has vowed to expel the Russians from territory they have seized since the start of the invasion, including the southern Kherson region as part of the Zaporizhia region, while Moscow has vowed to hold onto occupied areas and gain ground in various parts of the country. .

Donbas is made up of Luhansk province, now under full Russian control, and Donetsk province, of which Moscow controls about half.

By increasing attacks in the south, kyiv has forced Russia to split its forces, according to Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.

“The command of the Russian army is faced with a dilemma: try to maintain the offensive in the Donetsk region or strengthen the defenses in the south,” Zhdanov said. “It’s going to be difficult for them to do both tasks simultaneously for a long time.”

Instead of trying to mount a massive counteroffensive, he noted, the Ukrainians are trying to undermine Russian forces in the south with attacks on ammunition and depot dumps and other key targets.

“It doesn’t have to be a frontal attack,” the analyst said.

Moscow-backed local officials in eastern and southern Ukraine have talked about holding Russia accession votes starting in September. Those plans depend on Russia’s ability to gain full control of those areas by then.

“The main goal of the Kremlin is to force kyiv to sit down for negotiations, secure the existing line of contact and hold referendums in the fall,” said Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a kyiv-based think tank.

Western weapons, he noted, have increased Ukraine’s capability by allowing it to hit targets far from the front lines with a high degree of precision.

Ukraine has received about a dozen US-made HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which it has used to attack Russian ammunition depots, essential to maintaining Moscow’s advantage in firepower. HIMARS systems have a range of 80 kilometers (50 miles) and allow the Ukrainians to attack from beyond the range of most enemy artillery.

“It’s a major advantage,” Sunhurovsky said. “The Ukrainians have begun to carry out precision attacks on Russian warehouses, command posts, train stations and bridges, destroying logistics chains and undermining Russian military capacity.”

Ukrainian attacks on stockpiles have taken the Russian military by surprise, forcing it to disperse materiel away from combat zones, lengthening supply routes, undermining its superior firepower and helping to slow down the Russian offensive in the East.

“They have to keep everything in smaller, more spread out warehouses,” said Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who runs Sibylline, a strategic consultancy. “These are real annoyances that slow down. They have taken a hit in the timing of the artillery fire, which was really crucial before.”

Crump said the Russian military had underestimated the threat posed by HIMARS and left their ammo dumps exposed in known locations. “They believed that their air defense would shoot down the missiles. And it really didn’t,” he said.

In a series of attacks that have helped boost the country’s morale, the Ukrainians used HIMARS to attack a critical bridge over the Dnieper River in Kherson, cutting off traffic over the structure and creating potential supply problems for Russian forces in area.

Zhdanov, the Ukrainian military analyst, described the bridge as the key connection to supply Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnieper.

Russia can still use another passage over the river to bring supplies and reinforcements to its troops in Kherson, which lies just north of the Crimean Peninsula, occupied by Russia in 2014. But the Ukrainian attacks have exposed Russian vulnerability and weakened its control over the area.

“The Russians have the river at their back. It’s not a great place to defend,” Crump said. “They can’t get supplies easily. Morale is probably pretty low right now on that side of the river.”

Ukraine could at some point launch a huge counterattack with large numbers of troops and weapons, he said.

“That’s the opportunity for Ukraine, I think, to deal a more devastating blow to the Russians and push them back,” Crump said. “I think there’s more chance of that being attempted here than we’ve seen at any other point.”

Crump noted that the mere prospect of a major counteroffensive in the south helped kyiv force Russia to divert some of its forces from the main battlefield in the east.

“That is slowing down the offensive in Donbas,” Crump said. “So even the threat of an offensive is actually a success for Ukraine at the moment.”


Danica Kirka in London and Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.

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