Kherson | The city of fire and fury 

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Ukrainian forces, who lost the southern provincial capital in the early days of the war, took it back in a prolonged, bloodied counter-offensive

Ukrainian forces, who lost the southern provincial capital in the early days of the war, took it back in a prolonged, bloodied counter-offensive

On September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin combatively announced the annexation of four “oblasts” (regions) that are currently de jure Ukraine territory — Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — and claimed that these regions will be with Russia “forever”. The last of the four provinces has an added significance. Located just north of the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed bloodlessly in 2014, Kherson’s administrative centre is Kherson city, which also happened to be the only major provincial capital captured by the Russian forces in its nine-month-long invasion or what Mr Putin continues to call a “special military operation”.

Barely a month and a half later, on November 9, Russia announced a withdrawal from the western part of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region and that includes Kherson city, which is placed on the northwestern bank, by moving its troops and equipment to the river’s east bank. The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War termed this to be the outcome of a “purposeful and well-executed campaign [by Ukrainian forces] to target Russian concentration areas… without having to conduct large-scale and costly ground manoeuvers to liberate territory”. This included “constant attacks on bridges across the Dnipro River and [attacks that] targeted supply centres and ammunition depots on the east bank of the Dnipro [degrading the] ability of Russian forces to supply the grouping on the west bank”. Within a couple of days, Ukrainian forces entered Kherson city.

Read : Explained | Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson

This is a major setback for the Russian forces which have been subject to a raging counterattack by Ukrainian forces in both the north-east where areas around Kharkiv city were recovered and now in the south. Kherson city and the oblast had fallen to Russia in early March 2022 after fierce battles following the Russian invasion from the south through Crimea in late February. Russia had expected that the Ukrainian counter-offensives would begin in the south and had amassed troops and weaponry in the region — a factor that helped in the swiftness of the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region and its successes. In contrast, the Ukrainian counter-attack in Kherson was slower — the weather in the autumn season also made it difficult for the forces — and resulted in heavy casualties for both sides.

Land bridge

Kherson’s significance to the Russian invasion cannot be understated. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Putin regime had built an expensive bridge across the Kerch Strait to connect to Crimea. The inability to reach Crimea via road from Russia explains that one of the clear objectives for Moscow has been to create a “land bridge” to the annexed territories in the south of Ukraine — Crimea in particular, besides any further linking to the strategically important port of Odessa.

This aim was not just for strategic purposes but as a signal to partisan support in the country that Moscow had access and direct control over key areas in Ukraine as it did during its Tsarist past. The city was founded in 1778 as a fortress to help protect Russia’s Black Sea Fleet after Russia’s annexation of the territory in 1774. It grew in significance as a major shipping and shipbuilding centre in the 19th century and it industrialised further during the Soviet rule.

The invasion and annexation of Donbass, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson allowed Russia to create a “land bridge” to Crimea. Kherson oblast is also host to the North Crimean Canal that had been providing 85% of the water supply to Crimea but had been shut down by Ukraine following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. One of the first actions by Russian forces following the capture of Kherson was to restore the flow of water from the canal to Crimea.

Therefore, the withdrawal from Kherson city and areas in the west of the Dnipro river, which Russian defence spokespersons euphemistically called a “regrouping” operation, is a major setback for Mr. Putin’s regime. Russian commanders ordered close to 30,000 troops (according to U.S. intelligence) to retreat to the river’s east bank after having fielded its elite units to slow down the Ukrainian counteroffensive toward Kherson city.

Military strategists, however, suggest that while this is a political and symbolic blow for the Russians, the withdrawal is part of a pattern of pragmatism in the invasion — the Russians have cut their losses in and around Kherson city after heavy targeted hits by the Ukrainians and have moved on to hold the regions in Kherson oblast to the east of the river just as they pivoted to the east after their inability to capture Kyiv early into the Ukraine invasion. The Ukrainians managed to keep up attacks in the Kherson offensive because of the artillery weapons systems supplied by the western countries, which allowed them to attack Russian targets from a safe distance, inflicting severe losses and prompting what the Russian Defence Minister said was a withdrawal for the “life and health of Russian servicemen”.

Defence lines

Now, the Russian aim seems to be the reinforcement of its defence lines on the east side of the river and where it expects the Ukrainian advance will be halted because of the harsh terrain marked by fields with irrigation canals that have become marshy and muddy over the autumn. Russian forces, satellite imagery provided by the ISW showed, had destroyed the Antonivsky Bridge (near Kherson city) and other bridges to halt any further advance by Ukrainian forces into the parts of the oblast controlled by the Russians.

Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson city also followed a severe depopulation of the city with barely a quarter of the 250,000 people still remaining. Ukrainian forces advanced into Kherson city after the withdrawal but were cautious about the prospects of regaining full control over it, suggesting that they would have to deal with booby traps and mines left behind by the Russians.

Yet, despite these challenges presented by the Russian forces, the capture of Kherson city allows Ukraine to further recalibrate its counter-offensive by utilising its west-supplied rocket systems to target the Russian supply route via Crimea, which would fall under their range. With this initiative potentially targeting Crimea, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in the medium term, Russia can be expected to bolster its defences in the territories it holds in the south and this could lead to a protracted battle during the winter, a prospect that will continue to affect the rest of the world due to repercussions on trade and energy supplies. Unless of course, there are renewed ceasefire negotiations with a guarantee that Russia will not use them to regroup and further military objectives.

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