Ukraine announced this week that it had launched a counteroffensive to retake Kherson — the only city Russia holds west of the Dnieper River — raising a fog of uncertainty over how the effort is progressing, whether it succeeds.
The main adviser of President Uladzimir Zelensky, Aleksei Orestovich, emphasized that there will be “No quick wins” how the attack in the south began – this point is reflected in the Friday briefing of Western officials.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ukraine had “pushed back” Russian defenders in “several places,” but insisted it was too early to name villages captured or distances gained during the fighting.
The caution may be realistic, but it is also telling. This is by no means a blitzkrieg or a broad frontal attack, but rather a localized attempt to strike at the most obvious strategic vulnerability on Russia’s front line and try to demonstrate that Ukraine can repel the Russians on the ground before winter. is installed.
This is a struggle both for Kyiv’s ability to act actively, and for repelling the occupied city itself.
“The fact that Ukraine can do it, decided to do it, as you know, is very significant and shows a certain confidence, which is encouraging,” one official added, arguing that any shift by Kiev from offensive to defensive should be considered significant given what he has endured so far.
Ukraine has been conducting several weeks of preparatory work. Strategic bridges in Kherson, as well as ammunition depots and bridgeheads in the Russian rear, east of the Dnieper, in occupied Kherson and even in Crimea were repeatedly struck using a mixture of Western-supplied Khimars (missile launchers) and M270 missiles. artillery and daring raids in the rear.
However, while these flashy attacks would cripple Russia’s logistical base, they also provided time for reinforcements. The number of occupying troops west of the huge river, according to the latest Western estimates, has grown from a few thousand to about 20 thousand. In other words, the supply lines have not yet been cut.
Opposing them is likely to be the same number of Ukrainian troops – although the usual measure of military success is a three-to-one advantage – all of which suggests once again that progress is likely to be difficult. “In some areas we advance, and in others they beat us,” – one wounded Ukrainian soldier said the Wall Street Journal out of the hospital this week.
Mathieu Bouleg, an analyst at Chatham House, agrees that it’s too early to tell, and even this initial progress by attackers could be misleading. “Ukraine may be able to break through the Russian defenses and connect in a way to win, but if they fail, the risk is that it creates a cauldron where Ukrainian forces find themselves in a bulge that the Russians can sneak through and collapse.”
Nevertheless, fundamental indicators should be in favor of Ukraine. The four already damaged bridges are key to securing Kherson, and while Russia has installed pontoon alternatives, Ukraine says it can hit them. A longer siege campaign may be enough to convince the invaders that they are wasting soldiers and resources trying to hold out, although there are many reasons for Russia not to concede.
Obviously, what a bet. If Russia can hold on, the Kremlin will feel it is in a strong position to consolidate all the gains made in Ukraine through forced Russification and sham referendums. The Kremlin will also feel that it has damaged Kyiv’s political reputation through this process. Moscow wants the West to feel that the supply of modern weapons to Ukraine is not working, and that the population of Ukraine is tired of the fighting.
However, none of these scenarios seem likely at the moment, regardless of what happens on the battlefield. Ukrainian morale – and the desire to expel the Russians – remains high. Western arms deliveries continue. Progress in the return of Kherson will show that there may be a path to victory for Ukrainian troops next year; if that doesn’t happen, the war is likely to turn into a dark, drawn-out slog.