Looking closely at Kherson, Ukraine is preparing an ambitious counterattack

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 shells ricochets off neatly abandoned houses.

Along the rugged front line, Ukrainian troops are preparing for one of the largest and most significant military actions of the war: the capture of Kherson. the first city to fall For Russian forces, Kherson and the fertile lands surrounding it are a key Russian foothold from which its military is constantly launching attacks across the vast Ukrainian territory. Restoring control could also help restore momentum for Ukraine and give its troops a much-needed morale boost after months of heavy 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 host 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 provide soldiers with weapons and food. Their claims cannot be independently verified.

“It can be compared to waves,” said a senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “Right now we are creating small waves and setting the conditions for big ones.”

Unlike Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where large Russian forces slowly took over the province In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military appears to have begun to turn the tide in the Kherson region, albeit with a delay.

Ukrainian forces, which lost control of much of the region in the first weeks of the war, have so far liberated 44 towns and villages in the border areas, about 15 percent of the territory, according to the region’s military governor, Dmytro Butriy. 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.

Planned Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south sparked controversy among Western officials and some analysts about whether Ukraine was ready for such a big effort, or is it the best use of resources when Russian successes 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 now busy Kherson region for almost five months, and their efforts to strengthen military positions and prepare for the assault were practically not met. They have new leaders established both in the city itself and in large cities and villages.

A counterattack would require vast numbers of troops and many more offensive weapons systems than Ukraine currently has, according to some Western and Ukrainian officials. In general, Ukraine spends from 6,000 to 8,000 shells per day. If he launched an active attack on Kherson, then it would take three to four times more.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov spoke about the need to assemble a million-strong army in order to return the lands that Ukraine lost in the war. The Kherson region is mostly rural, but the city of Kherson is a sprawling metropolis stretching on both sides of the Dnieper River. His return could lead to fierce urban fighting with huge losses in soldiers and property.

“We are looking at Kherson as 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, but a full-scale assault with artillery fire could put those who remain at great risk, Ukrainian officials believe. conscious.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged residents of Kherson and the region to evacuate. “Please leave, because our army will definitely liberate these lands,” she said. “Our will to do so is unshakable.”

In the villages currently controlled by Ukraine’s 28th brigade along the western border of Kherson, only the most reckless stay above ground for long. Black mushroom clouds hang on the horizon as artillery shells whistle back and forth across the farmer’s fields. This week, brigade commander Vitaly Gulyaev was killed as a result of rocket fire.

“Every day we shoot at them, and they answer us, but do not move forward,” said Lieutenant Savchenko. “For the time being, we hold this territory, but as soon as the order is given, as soon as we have the opportunity to do so, we will move forward.”

Russian troops passed through the area early in the war, heading west along the Black Sea coast to Ukraine’s most important port city of Odessa. But they were stopped halfway. Fierce Ukrainian resistance in the Mykolaiv region pushed Russian troops back into the Kherson region, where they remain.

Most of the inhabitants fled from the frontline villages. The few who remain spend most of their time in bunkers or cellars.

Larisa Masliy, 74, and her husband have been living in the basement under their house since the war broke out on February 2. 24. Mrs. Maslii does not go anywhere these days, although her husband regularly runs to the house to take care of his pets: a dog, a cat and a hamster. They have equipped the basement with tents and LED lights, and are occasionally visited by a Ukrainian military chaplain who looks after them.

“We trusted God and our bomb shelter,” she said.

“Send more weapons,” she added, “so we can kick them out.”

To pave the way for the offensive, Ukraine’s military intelligence service is secretly training a legion of saboteurs, sending them into the occupied territory to carry out sabotage and provide information about the whereabouts of Russian troops. Officials appointed by the occupying Russian authorities were killed and their cars were blown up on some occasions.

In a run-down hotel near Odessa, a mother-of-four named Natalia appears to be an incredible warrior. She fled her farm in the area in April after Russian troops began arriving at her home looking for explosives.

Even though she lives in exile in another part of the country, she still tries to be useful to the Russian resistance. According to her, her husband, who stayed at home, regularly calls her and informs her about the latest movements of Russian troops in the region.

“He tells me where they are located,” she said. “And I’m passing this on to our guys, the armed forces.”

Until recently, according to Natalia, her husband began to lose heart. According to her, he could no longer hear the firing of Ukrainian guns and felt as if he had been abandoned. Then the guns fired up again.

“Our guys started shooting and I saw his morale improve,” Natalya said as her mother wept beside her, cursing the Russian military.

Mark Santora provided reporting from London.

Mark Santora, Julian E. Barnes as well as Eric Schmitt made a report.