Kherson was Ukraine’s worst defeat in the war and now kyiv is looking to make it their biggest success yet. The only provincial capital taken by Russia since the February invasion is close to experiencing urban fighting. The kyiv troops are only 12 kilometers 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 in the remainder of the year.
Ukraine lost control of Kherson province in the south of the country in early March, in the early stages of the Russian invasion, with the province’s 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 possible Ukrainian victory is expected to be at a high cost, also for the city of Kherson. Budanov explained in an interview to the newspaper Pravda that Russia contemplates a long siege similar to the one the Ukrainian resisters suffered in Mariupol. The city on the Azov Sea coast was razed to the ground after months of fighting and local resistance. Budanov says that the Russians do not want to be isolated in the city, located on the western bank of the Dnieper River, so they have prepared an escape plan to the other side of the river.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces already notified last week that the Russian Army was taking cover in the center of the city in the face of an inevitable urban combat scenario. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a benchmark American analysis center for this conflict, suggested that Russian troops were already withdrawing from the west of the province, something that Budanov rules 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,” says the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence services, but specifies that “they are not preparing to leave immediately; now they are preparing to defend” Kherson.
Videos shown by both Russian and Ukrainian military sources of the battle on the western plains of Kherson already 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 of Russian soldiers at the front, shared a devastating text last Saturday in which he gave up Kherson and criticized the high command because among the soldiers there was the conviction that part of them on the western bank will no longer have a way of escape.
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Kherson was illegally annexed by Russia last September along with a part of the province of Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Lugansk. The Moscow-imposed puppet 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 the Russian rearguard in Kherson explained last week to this newspaper that thousands of men in the province have chosen to leave the homes where they are registered and live in houses where they are not registered to make it difficult to locate.
In the province of Kherson, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 40% of the pre-war population would remain (less than half a million people). Most of them left the area in the early stages of the conflict in the direction of the European Union or western Ukraine. Russian authorities are currently forcibly evacuating thousands of people to Russia or to Crimea, a peninsula illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.
The loss of Russian positions in the city of Kherson is verified in videos broadcast on social networks by supporters of the Ukrainian liberation. In these videos appear establishments such as gas stations that now only accept payments in hryvnias, the Ukrainian currency, despite the fact that there is a formal obligation on the invader that trade be in rubles. The internet service in the provincial capital was first suspended last Sunday and this Monday it was barely working, according to the cybersecurity analysis firm Netblocks. Telecommunications are monitored by the Russian security services to prevent citizens from informing the Ukrainian Army of the movement of the occupying troops.
Budanov stressed that the Russian withdrawal in the city of Kherson is also being prepared with an eye on the rearview mirror: to the north, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are advancing rapidly towards Nova Kajovka, a strategic city on the eastern bank of the Dnieper and 40 kilometers from Kherson. The Ukrainian Army is making rapid progress and analysis groups such as Visegrad 24 state that they are 20 kilometers from Nova Kajovka, although ISW maps show a distance of 40 kilometers. The importance of Nova Kajovka is not only due to military strategy, but also because one of the largest dams in Ukraine, which supplies water to Crimea, and a hydroelectric power station necessary for the operation of the Zaporizhia nuclear plant, are located there. Moscow and kyiv accuse each other of seeking to damage the dam in order to provoke a catastrophe, although in their interview with Pravda, Budanov assures that destroying the dam is very difficult and none of the contenders is interested, due to its value as an energy and water resource.
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 province of Kherson, a new front would be opened to the south over the provinces of Donetsk and Zaporizhia, in addition to recovering the Black Sea coast lost in March. Not only that; Kherson is essential for the supply of weapons for Russian troops from Crimea. If Ukraine reconquers the province, the peninsula in Russian hands will no longer have the water and electricity supply that comes from the Dnieper River. But unlike the offensive in Kharkov (northeast), which surprised the Russian defenses, the fighting in cities such as Kherson and Nova Kakhovka will be more bloody and both contenders admit that casualties will be much higher.
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