There has recently been a change in the tactics used by both sides in the Ukraine war, largely due to the arrival of new weapons. Initially, after Russian troops crossed into Ukraine on February 24, the Ukrainian military undertook a masterful defensive strategy, using British-made NLAW anti-tank missiles, among others, to destroy Russian armor, thereby preventing troops from entering kyiv.
The Russian armed forces then used their heavy artillery to strategically attack the opposing side as well as the civilian population. The decision to focus on the Donbas region was made in part to support the Russian decision to focus on artillery, as its armed forces have been deployed there since 2014 and know the area well.
The Ukrainian military now believes they are in a position to push back the Russian wave south, eventually into Russia. The battle for Kherson, in southern Ukraine, could be key in this new strategy. It could provide the Ukrainian military with an opportunity to start reclaiming the territories in which the Russians are deployed, and perhaps other territories that local pro-Russian groups are trying to identify as theirs.
This renewed optimism is due to Ukrainian gunners have received eight Himars multiple rocket launchers from the United States, with the promise of more to come. This has allowed the Ukrainian military to go more on the offensive. Instead of being forced into holes by Russian artillery and having only limited weaponry with which to strike back, the Ukrainians are now able to destroy ammunition dumps, radar, and artillery positions from greater range.
There are rumors that Russia had to withdraw some of its troops from Syria in order to recommit to aggression against Ukraine. Western media also report US estimates of heavy losses on the Russian side. There have been signs that much of the Russian artillery is damaged or overused.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s plans to take on Russia’s private military security company, the Wagner Group, show a more aggressive intent on the part of Ukrainian defenders. And his destruction of the strategic Antonivskyi bridge was a successful demonstration of the effectiveness of the new weapons systems in the Ukrainian arsenal.
In this sense, Kherson, occupied since the beginning of March 2022, is a critical target for Ukraine. The city is very important for several reasons. First, control of Kherson means access to ports from which Ukraine could once again export goods, including grain. Russia’s ultimate goal appears to be to control territory as far as Moldova, liaise with pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, and deny Ukraine access to the Black Sea.
It is therefore crucial that Ukraine be able to prevent this with an offensive in the Kherson region, preventing the Russians from controlling the southern coast, including Odessa. The critical port city was recently the target of Russian airstrikes, shortly after an agreement was reached between Ukraine and Russia to allow grain shipments to resume.
Taking back Kherson would also be a signal to Russia that occupying a region is very different from maintaining control and running it administratively.. Reports from the occupied Kherson region suggest that a human emergency is taking place. There are reports of kidnapping and torture of civilians, but also of the forced enlistment of adult men in the Russian forces.
The region would be a key part of the liberation and de-Russianization of southern Ukraine. And there are some key targets, like the massive Kherson hydroelectric power plant, which supplies 85% of Russian-occupied Crimea with fresh water. Regaining the region would also give Ukraine control of the M14/P47 highway, allowing it to block Russian access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe‘s largest.
Finally, if the Ukrainians take back Kherson, it would be a huge blow to Russian morale.
For it, Ukraine will need many more weapons, especially drones, which are invaluable not only for reconnaissance, but also for mounting attacks on personnel and equipment.
But the recent summit of the Astana group in Tehran, with Russia, Iran and Turkey, could represent a setback. It has been reported that the Iranians will supply Russia with drones. And it is unclear what will happen to the next-generation Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles that Ukraine hoped to acquire from Turkey.
Little information has emerged from the summit about what has been agreed on the supply of drones. Reports now say that Ukraine is working hard to acquire these UAV systems from other sources.
A long war ahead
Until now, Ukraine has liberated 44 towns and cities in Kherson province, in a clear demonstration that Western-supplied weapons have had an effect. This advance was made possible by Western-supplied artillery, which is more accurate at longer ranges.
If and when it retakes Kherson, one of the problems Ukrainian authorities will face is understanding why the oblast fell so quickly to Russian hands, which means investigating the possibility of collusion by local officials and leaders.
The recent decision by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to remove his security chief and the country’s top prosecutor suggests that there is some evidence (we don’t yet know which one) that his departments may have been corrupted in some way. It is not clear if the people in question have participated in it, but they have been forced to take responsibility with their jobs.
It’s hard to know where things are headed in Ukraine right now. The local people I talk to on a daily basis are resigned to talking about a long war. The Ukrainians are exhausted, but their anger at the invasion and their motivation to take back all of their territory have not changed and there seems little doubt that as long as they can get hold of enough weapons to withstand Russian violence, they will keep fighting.
Anicée Van Engeland is Associate Professor of International Security and Law Cranfield Forensic Institute, Cranfield University
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