The most critical front in the Ukraine-Russia war is the one that has been most forgotten, at least until now. That is about to change. The southern front – along the Azov Sea coastline and Kherson Province – is where Russia made its greatest gains in the war. Those gains occurred in the war’s initial phase. There was the ease with which they took the city of Kherson and the surrounding province in a matter of days after the war started. Then there was the long and drawn-out siege for the city of Mariupol. The Russians took control of the city rather quickly, but the fighting around the Azovstal Steel Plant raged for weeks on end. Finally, the Ukrainian forces surrendered.
Russia had complete control of Ukraine’s coastline along the Azov Sea. They also held the rich agricultural land further inland. Ukraine had lost part of its breadbasket and an industrial powerhouse. Kherson then became an afterthought, with little of note happening other than the Russian administration tightening its control over the civilian populace. The city of Kherson was a hotbed of peaceful protests during the opening weeks of the war. The Russian occupation authorities took measures to ensure that would not continue.
Precision Strikes – Back To The Southern Front
The battlefront then turned toward an intense focus on the Donbas region. For several months, the Russians plodded forward while the Ukrainians did their best to hold off a brutal assault that relied mainly on artillery power. The Russians got the better of the Ukrainians, inflicting what has been estimated as upwards of 500 casualties a day. At the end of what was an exhaustingly prolonged battle, the Russians held cities they had all but obliterated and occupied almost all the Luhansk Province. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians survived the onslaught with their armed forces damaged, but still intact. By the time Russia’s Donbas offensive stopped with an operational pause, the Ukrainians had begun to take villages in the rural areas of Kherson province.
It has been no secret that the Ukrainians want to mount a devastating counteroffensive that could break the Russian lines and lead to the recapture of Kherson. This will be difficult because throughout the war, whichever side is on the defense has an advantage. A rule of thumb is that it takes a three to one advantage for the offensive force to overcome a defending one. In addition, any offensive must have large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. Thus far, neither side has been able to muster enough men and material to overwhelm the opposition.
This time could be different because Ukraine has more precise weaponry. Where the Ukrainians have been able to inflict the most damage upon the Russians has been with the American made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), along with other similar systems donated to them by their allies. While the Russians still have an abundance of artillery and ammunition, they are now having trouble getting it to the battlefield. Ukrainian forces have used the HIMARS to knock out Russian weaponry, ammunition depots, and command centers. Weapons and ammunition useless unless they can be brought to the front.
Moving Forward – The Power of Momentum
Russia already has enough trouble getting soldiers to the battlefield. They now are having the same problems with weapons and ammunition. A stark illustration of this comes from estimates that the Russians went from firing 20,000 rounds a day during their Donbas offensive, to just 2,000 a day after Ukraine began using the HIMARS. This has allowed the Ukrainians to soften up Russian defenses in the south. They have been able to slowly move forward, taking over fifty villages in rural areas of Kherson province. This is a major role reversal from the Battle of Donbas. Russia is now on the defensive. They have moved in more troops to check the Ukrainian advance. This is proving much tougher than usual because Ukraine has targeted key bridges along supply lines. This could leave thousands of Russian troops isolated in and around Kherson.
Nevertheless, all is not glorious for the Ukrainian forces in Kherson. While they are making progress, the forward movement has been at a snail’s pace. Military experts wonder if Ukraine can muster the men and material needed to carry out more than a limited offensive. At this point, the answer is probably not. They lost thousands of their most battle-hardened soldiers in the Donbas. While the Ukrainians can replenish their ranks much quicker than the Russians, the newcomers still must be trained. Those who survived the fighting in the Donbas are likely to remain there to keep the Russians tied down. The last thing Ukraine wants to do is lose more ground in the Donbas while trying to recover Kherson Province. Mustering the material and manpower to take Kerson could be months in the making, but the offensive must take place before the onset of winter. Russia is already tightening the screws on gas supplies to Ukraine’s allies. If the Ukrainian Army does not take Kherson by the end of autumn, the Ukrainians can expect pressure from NATO and European Union members to begin peace negotiations with the Russians.
Stepping Stones – Point of Advance
Another worry is that if the Ukrainians do not take Kherson, it will mean they have lost a region vital to their economy for the foreseeable future and quite possibly for good. The rural areas in the province are known for their extremely fertile soil where a range of crops are grown. Closer to the city there are ports and electrical plants that power the Ukrainian economy. Losing these assets would be a huge economic blow to Ukraine, one from which it would be hard to recover. Long term loss of the area would also mean the Russians have a staging ground to make assaults further west in pursuit of the ultimate prize, the Black Sea port city of Odessa. Loss of the latter would cripple the Ukrainian economy. The port facilities in and around the city are where Ukrainian grain is shipped across the Black Sea.
Kherson is a critical steppingstone for both Ukrainian and Russian ambitions. If the Ukrainians recapture it, they will have an unprecedented opportunity to harass the Russians on the Crimean Peninsula and possibly win the war. Conversely, if the Russians hold Kherson, their chances of negotiating an end to the war which locks their territorial gains into place will be good. Ironically, the war could be decided in Kherson where the Russians first found success. Now they find themselves in a much different position fighting a foe they thought would surrender in less than a week. After five and a half months of intense combat, the war’s outcome is still in doubt. The victor in Kherson will have a good chance to win the war. That, more than anything else, is why Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive could be a deciding factor in the war.