ON THE BORDER OF KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The road to Russian-occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine passes through a no man’s land of charred wheat fields and sinkhole-covered villages. Rocket tails stick out of the asphalt, and the rumble of incoming and outgoing artillery ricochets off neat abandoned houses.
Along the rugged front line, Ukrainian troops are preparing for one of the most ambitious and significant military operations of the war: the capture of Kherson. Kherson and its surrounding fertile lands were the first city to be captured by Russian forces and are a key Russian foothold from which its military constantly strikes across a wide swath of Ukrainian territory. Restoring control could also help restore momentum for Ukraine and give its troops a much-needed morale boost after months of bitter fighting.
“We want to liberate our territory and take it back under our control,” the senior lieutenant said. Sergei Savchenko, whose unit as part of the 28th brigade of Ukraine is digging in along the western border of the Kherson region. “We’re ready. We’ve wanted this for a long time.”
Already, fighting on the region’s western and northern borders is intensifying as Ukrainian forces, currently about 30 miles from the city at its closest point, are laying the groundwork for a major offensive. For a month, Ukrainian artillery and missile forces have been weakening Russian positions using a range of new Western weapons, such as highly mobile artillery rocket systems, or HIMARS, provided by the United States.
Ukrainian officials say the strikes, some of which were filmed, destroyed forward command posts and key ammunition depots, which burst into brilliant fireballs when struck. They claim that hundreds of Russian troops were killed and that the attacks disrupted Russia’s logistical infrastructure. According to them, supply depots and command positions have been pushed back from the front line, making it difficult to supply and feed their soldiers. (Their claims cannot be verified independently.)
“It can be compared to waves,” said a senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity about military planning. “Right now we are creating small waves and setting the conditions for big ones.”
Unlike the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, where massive Russian forces continue to seize territory, in the Kherson region, the Ukrainian military appears to have begun to turn the tide, though not immediately. According to the military governor of the Kherson region, Dmitry Butriy, Ukrainian troops, who lost control of most of the region in the first weeks of the war, have so far liberated 44 cities and villages in the border areas, which is about 15 percent of the territory.
Ukraine’s top officials have not given a clear timeline for the return of Kherson, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that it is a top priority.
“Our forces are moving into the region step by step,” he said. Zelensky said this week.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south has sparked debate among Western officials and some analysts about whether Ukraine was prepared for such a massive effort or whether it is the best use of resources when Russian offensives are mainly in the Donbass.
However, Ukrainian officials and several Western intelligence officials said it was important that Ukraine attempt to launch a counterattack. The Russian military is said to be in a relatively weaker position, having used up weapons and personnel in its advance into the Donbass. Richard Moore, head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service MI6, predicted that the Russians would be forced to take a break, leaving the Ukrainian forces open.
However, any attempt to reclaim significant territory would be a huge undertaking. Russian forces have occupied the Kherson region for almost five months now, and their attempts to reinforce combat positions and prepare for an offensive have been virtually non-existent. They installed new leaders in the city itself, as well as in large cities and villages.
In preparation for a possible referendum on joining Russia, the Kremlin-created military administration in Kherson this month announced the formation of a central election commission.
Retaking Kherson will require vast numbers of troops and many more offensive weapons systems than Ukraine currently has, according to both Western and Ukrainian officials.
The Kherson region is mostly rural, but the city of Kherson is a sprawling metropolis stretching on both sides of the Dnieper River. Taking it away from the Russian troops could lead to fierce urban battles with huge losses in soldiers and property.
“We’re looking at Kherson like it’s the next Fallujah,” said Michael Maldonado, a 34-year-old former US Marine from Kansas who joined the 28th Brigade. “There will be a lot of crazy fights.”
The Ukrainian army will also have to take into account the large number of civilians. The city has lost about a third of its pre-war population of about 300,000, although a full-scale attack with artillery fire could put the lives of civilians in great danger, something the Ukrainian authorities seem to be aware of.
Mark Santora, Julian E. Barnes as well as Eric Schmitt made a report.