Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russia after Vladimir Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine. Now it has become the focus of a reported counter-offensive by Kiev forces to retake it.
Ukrainian claims of fresh attacks on Russian positions around the strategic southern port city at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea have sparked speculation that the long-awaited attempt to retake the region and its capital is underway.
“Retaking the occupied territory of Kherson province on the west bank of the Dnieper would be a major psychological and political win for Kyiv,” said Peter Rutland, professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut
“The city of Kherson is the only provincial capital that fell into Russian hands. It would also make it much harder for the Russians to launch an offensive to take Odessa,” he said news week.
“However, that would still leave a large part of the Russian-occupied territory on the east bank of the Dnieper, including the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.”
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s Presidential Office reported that there were “powerful explosions” and “hard fighting” in the region day and night. The report states that Ukrainian forces destroyed ammunition depots and all major bridges across the Dnieper needed to supply Russian troops.
The Russian news agency Tass announced on Tuesday that there had been five explosions in Kherson, which were probably caused by air defense systems in action.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military’s Operation Command South also reported the destruction of a pontoon crossing the Dnieper River and a dozen command posts in the Kherson region.
news week asked the defense ministries of Ukraine and Russia for their opinion.
Since late June, Ukraine has been using US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers to attack bridges across the Dnieper, disrupting supplies of ammunition and other heavy equipment to Russian forces.
Despite claims that a counter-offensive has begun, Ukrainian officials warned against undue optimism, with presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych describing a “slow operation to attrition the enemy” on his social media Telegram account.
“Many want a full-scale offensive with news that our military will capture a settlement in an hour,” he wrote.
But the reports of fighting back a prediction by former Swedish prime minister and diplomat Carl Bildt on June 28, who said the fight for control of the Kherson region was “now by far the most important part of the war in Ukraine.”
“There is a clear Russian intention to completely cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea,” he tweeted.
Cherson and the region of the same name, straddling the Dnieper River, is a gateway to Crimea, which Moscow conquered in 2014. Retaking the region could give Kiev forces a launch pad for an offensive in Crimea, which has already been the scene of explosions not directly claimed by Kyiv.
Because it fell so early in the war, avoiding the destruction of cities like Mariupol and Severodonetsk, Kherson was the scene of entrenchment by the Russian occupiers who had established political control there.
But after Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv and its second-largest city, Kharkiv, losing Kherson would wipe out one of Moscow’s most tangible gains.
It is also important agriculturally and economically, with power plants and reservoirs that could potentially sustain Crimea and support Ukraine’s efforts to resume grain shipments through the Black Sea.
“It has both symbolic and tactical importance,” said geopolitical strategist Alp Sevimlisoy news week.
He said Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson will “project a vision of Crimea’s reintegration” and “support troop deployments that will enhance the country’s Black Sea capabilities.”
Sevimlisoy added that retaking Kherson will allow Ukraine to increase its cooperation with Turkey on the Black Sea Grains Initiative.
Partially brokered by Ankara last month, the deal allowed ships carrying Ukrainian food products to leave Black Sea ports for the first time since the war began.
“The successful recapture of Kherson will allow the Turkish Navy to strengthen its existing cooperation with Ukraine,” Sevimlisoy said of this grain deal. It would also allow the Turkish Air Force to provide “greater security for Ukraine in Crimea and the port facilities of Kherson.”
Meanwhile, Salvatore Mercogliano, a marine historian and associate professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina, said the current deal allows Ukraine to ship grain from three ports — Odessa, Yuzhny and Chornomorsk.
“They are trying to add Mykolayiv. The problem with the latter is that ships would have to pass a peninsula held by the Russians — and the key to that piece of land is Kherson,” he said news week.
“If the Ukrainians take Kherson, they could open both ports – but that would have to be renegotiated when the current deal expires.”
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