Russian troops preparing for urban combat in Kherson as Ukrainian army advances

Kyiv hopes to recover the occupied city before the end of the year, in what is shaping up to be a key battle for the future of the war

People lining up for water in downtown Mikolaiv, Ukraine, on Monday.
People lining up for water in downtown Mikolaiv, Ukraine, on Monday.Emilio Morenatti (AP)
Cristian Segura (Special correspondent)

Kherson was Ukraine’s worst defeat in the war, and now Kyiv is looking to turn it into its biggest success yet. The only provincial capital taken by Russia since the start of the invasion in February is close to experiencing urban fighting. Ukrainian troops are only 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the city and the Russian army is evacuating the population to prepare for a long siege. Kirilo Budanov, head of intelligence for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, confirmed on Monday that the goal is to take Kherson, a key port city in the south, before the end of the year.

Ukraine lost control of Kherson region in the south of the country in early March, during the early stages of the Russian invasion, with the local forces barely putting up a fight. The lack of preparation for a surprise offensive and the collaboration of local authorities with the invader opened the doors to the Russians. Almost eight months later, the tables are turning, although a Ukrainian victory is expected to come at a high cost. Budanov explained in an interview with the daily Pravda that Russia is contemplating a long siege similar to the one the Ukrainian resistance suffered in Mariupol. The city on the coast of the Azov Sea was razed after months of fighting between Russian troops and local resistance fighters. Budanov added that the Russians do not want to be isolated in Kherson, which is located on the western bank of the Dnieper, and have prepared an escape plan to the other side of the river.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces warned last week that the Russian Army was taking cover in the city center to prepare for an inevitable urban combat scenario. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a benchmark American analysis center in this conflict, suggested that Russian troops may already be withdrawing from the west of Kherson region, something that Budanov has ruled out: “It is an illusion to believe that they are gone. They are moving in new units and preparing the defense in the streets of Kherson.” “The Russians are preparing the ground so that, if necessary, they can leave very quickly,” said the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence services, adding that “they are not preparing to leave immediately; now they are preparing to defend” Kherson.

Videos shared by both Russian and Ukrainian military sources showing scenes from the battle on the western plains of Kherson provide evidence that armor and infantry battalions on both sides are fighting within close range of each other. Gray Zone, a Russian Telegram account known for providing information and assessments by Russian soldiers on the front, shared a devastating text last Saturday that suggested Kherson would be lost. It also criticized the high command because soldiers are convinced that troops stationed on the western bank will no longer have an escape route.

Kherson was illegally annexed by Russia last September along with a part of the region of Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk. The Moscow-imposed proxy government in Kherson announced on Monday that it would form civilian volunteer militias to defend the city, inviting men in the region to join these paramilitary units. Given the risk of recruitment by force, a Ukrainian fighter in Kherson explained last week that thousands of men have left the addresses where they are officially registered as residents, and staying elsewhere to make it difficult for officials to locate them.

A child evacuated on Monday from the city of Kherson, on a bus leaving for Crimea.
A child evacuated on Monday from the city of Kherson, on a bus leaving for Crimea.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)

According to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, fewer than 500,000 people, around 40% of the pre-war population, are still living in the region of Kherson. Most of them left the area in the early stages of the conflict, headed for the European Union or western Ukraine. Russian authorities are now forcibly evacuating thousands of people who stayed behind to Russia or to Crimea, a peninsula illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.

The loss of Russian positions in the city of Kherson can be verified in videos shared on social media by supporters of the Ukrainian liberation movement. These videos show establishments such as gas stations that now only accept payments in hryvnias, the Ukrainian currency, despite the fact that there is a formal obligation to use Russian rubles. The internet service in the provincial capital was suspended last Sunday and was just barely working on Monday, according to the cybersecurity analysis firm Netblocks. Telecommunications are monitored by Russian security services to prevent citizens from informing the Ukrainian army of the movements of the occupying troops.

New front

Budanov underscored that as Russians prepare to withdraw from the city of Kherson, they have an eye on the rearview mirror: to the north, Ukrainian troops are advancing rapidly towards Nova Kajovka, a strategic city on the eastern bank of the Dnieper located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Kherson. The Ukrainian army is making rapid progress and analysis groups such as Visegrad 24 said that they are 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Nova Kajovka, although ISW maps show a distance of 40 kilometers. Nova Kajovka is strategically important not just from a military point of view, but also because it is home to one of the largest dams in Ukraine, supplying water to Crimea, as well as to a hydroelectric power station necessary for the operation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of seeking to damage the dam to cause a disaster, although in his interview with Pravda, Budanov said that destroying the dam is very difficult and neither of the contenders is really interested in doing so, due to its value as an energy and water source.

Kherson is essential for Ukraine if it wants to recover most of the territory lost to Russia in the war, but also to prepare a future offensive on Crimea. From the region of Kherson, a new southern front would be opened to the regions of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, in addition to recovering the Black Sea coast that was lost in March. In addition, Kherson is essential for the supply of weapons to Russian troops from Crimea. If Ukraine wins back the region, the peninsula now in Russian hands will be cut off from the water and electricity supply that comes from the Dnieper River. But unlike the offensive in Kharkiv (northeast), which caught the Russians by surprise, the fighting in cities such as Kherson and Nova Kajovka will be much bloodier, and both sides admit that casualties will be much higher.


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