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Can Ukrainian Forces Take Kherson Back From Russia?

Story Highlights
  • The Himars, of which Ukraine has 12 and four more on the way, appear to be helping Kyiv's forces target four key bridges leading into Kherson.
  • If cutting off the city by destroying the bridges is difficult, capturing it will be even more difficult, given the remaining civilian population.

The British-made NLAW anti-tank bazooka was arguably the decisive weapon in the first phase of the Ukrainian war, helping repel Russian forces from the outskirts of Kyiv. Russia’s 152mm artillery dominated the second phase, bombing cities to rubble before advancing ground forces.

But the focus now is on the impact of the US-made Himars rocket artillery, which Ukrainian forces have been using to halt the Russian advance by striking ammunition dumps in the rear – 50, according to Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov – and whether they can create the conditions for a successful advance towards Kherson, one of the largest cities captured by the invaders.

Kherson, which was captured in early March, has long been a target for Ukrainian forces, with defenders making limited gains in the countryside between Mykolaiv and the target city since April. But, aided by longer-range weapons with effective firing ranges of up to 50 miles (80 kilometres), the Ukrainians appear to be gaining confidence.

Sergiy Khlan, an aide to the Kherson region’s administrative head, told Ukrainian television that a tipping point had been reached and that the region “will definitely be liberated by September.” On the basis of the evidence, it is a bold claim, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has instead spoken of liberating Kherson “step by step.”

The Himars, of which Ukraine has 12 and four more on the way, appear to be helping Kyiv’s forces target four key bridges leading into Kherson. The city, the only Russian stronghold west of the Dnieper, is obviously strategically vulnerable if Ukraine can muster the necessary force to drive the occupiers out.

However, the story of the bridges illustrates some of the challenges Ukraine faces in recapturing its population centres. Khlan’s social media posts make it clear that Ukraine’s goal is not to destroy key bridges, such as the Dariv Bridge across the Inhulets River east of the city, but rather to damage them so that Russians cannot transport heavy equipment across them.

The Ukrainian military wants to ensure that food supplies continue to enter the city, so the country’s armed forces will “do everything possible not to destroy the structure,” according to Khlan. Even allowing for the greater accuracy of the Himars, that is a difficult balance to strike – but more importantly, it reveals a key constraint on the Ukrainians’ ability to strike back.

According to the RIA Novosti news agency, Russian officials acknowledged damage to another key bridge near the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, across the Dnieper, about 40 miles east of Kherson. The Russians claimed that the damage was caused by Himars rocket artillery, but the news agency quickly released images of workers apparently filling in a road hole.

If cutting off the city by destroying the bridges is difficult, capturing it will be even more difficult, given the remaining civilian population. Russia has demonstrated its willingness to destroy cities like Mariupol and Sievierodonetsk before capturing them. However, for Ukraine, which is seeking to liberate its own territory, this is clearly not an option. If the Russians choose to stay in the city, it may be difficult to displace them.

It is also not obvious that the arrival of a single longer-range weapon will create the conditions for a faster overall advance. Ukraine lacks meaningful air power, so it must rely on assembling a large number of ground forces against an enemy that has occupied the city for nearly five months. Meanwhile, western supplies continue to arrive gradually rather than in the quantities required by Ukraine.

Reznikov announced on Monday that the first three of the 15 Gepard mobile artillery guns promised by Germany in April had arrived in Ukraine, and that he hoped to receive several dozen Leopard tanks soon, most likely from Spain. The increased supply may help Ukraine tip the balance on one front, but there has been no evidence that the defenders can break through.

The arrival of Himars and rocket artillery appears to have tipped the military balance towards equilibrium after four months of gradual Russian advance in the east and south. However, it is not yet clear that the invaders can be pushed back; perhaps it is no surprise that Khlan optimistically suggested that the Russians’ best option was to voluntarily surrender Kherson.

I’m writing from Ukraine, where I’ve spent much of the last six months reporting on the conflict’s buildup and the grim reality of war. It has been the most demanding period of my 30-year career. In December, I went to the trenches outside Donetsk with the Ukrainian army; in January, I went to Mariupol and drove along the coast to Crimea; and on February 24, I was in Kiev with other colleagues as the first Russian bombs fell.

This is Europe’s bloodiest conflict since 1945. It is an existential struggle for Ukrainians against a new but familiar Russian imperialism. Our team of reporters and editors intends to cover this war for as long as it lasts, regardless of the cost. We are dedicated to telling both the human stories of those caught up in conflict and the international dimension. We can’t do it without the help of Guardian readers. Your enthusiasm, engagement, and financial contributions underpin our independent journalism and allow us to report from places like Ukraine.

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