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Ukraine’s Battle for Kherson Could Be a Key Victory

Zelensky has pledged to liberate occupied territory.

By , a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
A view of the destroyed Fabrika shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kherson on July 20.
A view of the destroyed Fabrika shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kherson on July 20.
A view of the destroyed Fabrika shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kherson on July 20. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Over the last two weeks, Ukraine has successfully bombarded key bridges along the Dnipro River and forced Russian reinforcements onto vulnerable floating bridges, the first step in its plan to encircle, siege, and eventually retake the city of Kherson—a strategically important port city quickly captured by Russia in March. If successful, the liberation of Kherson would be one of Ukraine’s most significant victories since Russia launched its invasion.

Kherson is the only regional capital in Ukraine successfully captured by invading Russian forces in the south, taken in the early days of the war. Kyiv has spent months preparing for its now-underway late summer counteroffensive as Ukrainian forces trained up on and began to use heavy weapons from Western partners, such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). After weeks of slowly advancing into the Kherson region and retaking 44 villages and towns, the liberation of Kherson would show the world that Ukraine has the means and knowhow to take the wind out of Russia’s sails and follow through on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pledge to liberate Ukrainians under occupation.

The only Russian-held city on the western side of the Dnipro River, Kherson’s fate may be a weathervane for the course of the war. If Ukraine retakes the city and disables key bridges, it could effectively end Russia’s advances from the south by preventing both sides from crossing the river. But if Russia manages to hold onto Kherson, the city could become the gateway for a new Russian offensive to conquer the key port city of Odesa.

Over the last two weeks, Ukraine has successfully bombarded key bridges along the Dnipro River and forced Russian reinforcements onto vulnerable floating bridges, the first step in its plan to encircle, siege, and eventually retake the city of Kherson—a strategically important port city quickly captured by Russia in March. If successful, the liberation of Kherson would be one of Ukraine’s most significant victories since Russia launched its invasion.

Kherson is the only regional capital in Ukraine successfully captured by invading Russian forces in the south, taken in the early days of the war. Kyiv has spent months preparing for its now-underway late summer counteroffensive as Ukrainian forces trained up on and began to use heavy weapons from Western partners, such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). After weeks of slowly advancing into the Kherson region and retaking 44 villages and towns, the liberation of Kherson would show the world that Ukraine has the means and knowhow to take the wind out of Russia’s sails and follow through on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pledge to liberate Ukrainians under occupation.

The only Russian-held city on the western side of the Dnipro River, Kherson’s fate may be a weathervane for the course of the war. If Ukraine retakes the city and disables key bridges, it could effectively end Russia’s advances from the south by preventing both sides from crossing the river. But if Russia manages to hold onto Kherson, the city could become the gateway for a new Russian offensive to conquer the key port city of Odesa.

Ukraine’s likely battle plan, laid out in detail by the Kyiv Independent, relies on a careful combination of all the modern weapons systems supplied by the West so far, including multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), artillery systems, and drones. While Russia has often employed its overwhelming artillery advantage to demolish and dismember the cities it attempts to conquer, Ukraine plans to cut Kherson’s undersupplied occupiers off from Russian reinforcements moving up from the south while much of Russia’s fighting force is concentrated on the Donbas in the east. According to British defense officials, Ukraine’s plan is working and Kherson is “virtually cut off” from other occupied territories.

Ukraine’s strategy relies on successfully damaging three key bridges along the Dnipro near Kherson—two on the city’s outskirts at Antonivka, as well as the Kakhovska Hydroelectric Power Plant, which also serves as a bridge. With these routes for Russian heavy weapons and armor out, the only viable path for Russian reinforcements from the south to get to Kherson would be a river crossing near Zaporizhzhia—nearly 125 miles away. Ukraine’s plan cuts both ways, as damaging these bridges also prevents Ukrainian forces from using them to fight further into the south.

On July 27, footage was posted of one of the Antonivka bridges riddled with holes from artillery strikes. A long siege of isolated Russian forces in Kherson could be lengthy, but could allow Ukrainian forces to avoid the kind of apocalyptic campaigns used by Russia to take cities like Mariupol—but only if Ukraine’s newly acquired HIMARS and counter-battery systems can be used in concert to keep Russian forces from building temporary river crossings and to defend against Russian rocket strikes.

With 12 HIMARS already employed by Ukrainian forces on top of other Western rocket systems and four more HIMARS on the way from the United States, both Kyiv and the Pentagon say the rocket system has been a game changer that allows for precision strikes against more than 100 high-value targets. Firing behind enemy lines to destroy Russian ammunition depots—Ukraine says it has destroyed more than 50 using the rocket system—and command posts, these rocket systems are giving Ukraine the ability to keep eating into Russia’s strained logistics.

But while heavy weapons like HIMARS have proven effective in precision strikes behind Russian lines and in preparing for the siege of Kherson, they’ll be even more essential to holding off any Russian attempts to reinforce Kherson or build temporary bridges across the Dnipro River. According to Kyiv Independent defense reporter Illia Ponomarenko, this kind of operation would require well-equipped and organized infantry brigades protected by air cover and counter-battery capabilities.

More importantly, if Ukraine is going to have a chance of holding Kherson and retaking further territory in the south, Kyiv says it needs longer-range ammunition for HIMARS, such as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) which would take the Western supplied rocket system from a range of 50 miles to nearly 200 miles. Despite White House explanations that it won’t give Kyiv weapons that can “strike into Russia,” any weapon can strike across Ukraine’s border if it’s close enough—not to mention that Ukraine has no desire to conquer Russian territory, only retake its own. But even if Washington remains unwilling to give Kyiv the ideal tools it needs, it could compromise and send rocket ammunition with an extended range of 100 miles, which would still help Ukraine’s forces to safeguard their crucial heavy weapons far behind the frontlines.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive can’t come soon enough though, as occupied Kherson has quickly turned into a nightmare for its residents. A new Human Rights Watch report details how Russian occupiers in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions arbitrarily “disappear,” unlawfully detain, and torture those at their mercy. Dozens of residents describe brutal interrogations and torture, including one man beaten with a baseball bat and others who suffered electric shocks and burns. Two Territorial Defense fighters died in captivity. Moscow is in the process of officially annexing Kherson and has now deployed officials to conduct a faux Crimea-style referendum on joining Russia, something that could give legal cover for Russia to deploy conscripts to the area. With Russian forces exhausted from near-continuous fighting, the ability to send fresh, if unseasoned, forces into the area would bolster their defenses and give Moscow more options for a new southern offensive.

Reports like this make clear that the atrocities committed by Russian forces in places like Bucha and Irpin were not isolated incidents and that abuse is widespread in territory held by Russia. This only heightens the urgency for Ukraine to liberate occupied territory, and to ensure Kyiv has the equipment and training needed to succeed. Despite some calls from prominent Westerners in recent months for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the fighting and potentially cede territory to Russia, these continuing abuses illustrate how the real cost of such a deal would be paid by those Ukrainians sold off to Moscow.

One Kherson regional official said Western support would be critical in the coming weeks and that Kherson would be in Ukrainian hands by the end of September. While this projection may be a bit optimistic, Ukraine’s success in the coming weeks will be vital to ensuring Ukraine regains real access to the Black Sea for commercial shipping, without which the country’s economy could be indefinitely crippled. Despite a shaky deal with Russia allow some commercial shipping, the Kremlin maintains the ability to reimpose its Black Sea blockade and choke off Ukraine’s critical global food supply.

The war in Ukraine has so far been marked by an astounding initial success in repelling Moscow’s blitzkrieg, followed by slow and grinding losses in the east. A successful counterattack that both retakes Kherson and stops Russia’s southern advance in its tracks could give Kyiv the initiative it needs to not only put Moscow on its back foot, but reinvigorate crucial Western support that has been waning in recent weeks.

The looming battle of Kherson will be one of Ukraine’s most important fights since the defense of Kyiv. With the smart use of its new arsenal and a bit of luck, Ukraine just might be able to turn the tide against the invaders and give the world a glimpse of what a Russian defeat looks like.

Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.  Twitter: @DougKlain

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