Kherson region, Ukraine – The road to the Russian-occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine passes through an area empty of charred wheat fields and torn villages. The tails of the rockets peep out of the asphalt, and the roar of incoming and outgoing artillery shells bounces off deserted houses.
Along the rough front line, Ukrainian forces are preparing for one of the most ambitious and important military actions of the war: retaking Kherson. Kherson, the first city to fall into the hands of Russian troops, and the fertile surroundings serve as a major bridge for Russia, whose army constantly launches attacks across a wide area of Ukrainian territory. Regaining control could also help restore momentum to Ukraine, and give its forces a much-needed morale boost, after months of fierce fighting.
“We want to liberate our lands and return everything to our control,” said Senior Lieutenant Sergei Savchenko, whose unit with the 28th Ukrainian Brigade was dug along the western border of the Kherson region. “We are ready. We have wanted this for a long time.”
Already, fighting is escalating on the region’s western and northern borders, with Ukrainian forces – currently about 30 miles from the city at their closest point – laying the foundation for a major offensive push. For a month, Ukrainian artillery and missile forces had been smoothing out Russian positions with a range of new Western-supplied weapons such as High Mobility Missile Systems, or HIMARS, supplied by the United States.
Ukrainian officials said the strikes, some of which were recorded on video, targeted forward command posts and key munitions depots, which erupted into shimmering fireballs when bombarded. They claim that hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed and that the attacks disrupted Russia’s logistical infrastructure. They say supply depots and command posts have been pushed back from the front lines, making it difficult for Russia to keep its soldiers armed and fed. (Not all of their claims can be independently verified.)
“You can compare it to the waves,” said a senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “Right now, we’re making small waves and creating the conditions to make bigger waves.”
In contrast to the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, where a huge Russian force continues to storm the territory, in the Kherson region, the Ukrainian army seems to have begun to turn the tide, if reluctantly. After losing control of most of the region in the early weeks of the war, Ukrainian forces have now liberated 44 towns and villages along the border areas, about 15 percent of the territory, according to the military governor of the Kherson region, Dmytro Putri.
Top Ukrainian officials have not given any clear timetable for the restoration of Kherson, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that it is a top priority.
“Our forces are moving in the region step by step,” Mr. Zelensky said this week.
The Ukrainian counterattack in the south sparked debate among Western officials and some analysts about whether Ukraine was prepared for such a major effort, or whether it was the best use of resources when the Russian advance mostly came into the Donbass.
However, Ukrainian officials and several Western intelligence officials said it was important for Ukraine to attempt a counterattack. They say that the Russian army is in a relatively weak position, having spent weapons and personnel on the Donbass offensive. Richard Moore, head of MI6, predicted that the Russians would have to pause, providing an opportunity for Ukrainian forces.
However, any effort to restore significant territory would be a monumental task. Russian forces now occupied the Kherson region for nearly five months and were largely unaffected in their efforts to strengthen military positions and prepare for the offensive. They installed new leaders in the city itself as well as in the main towns and villages.
In preparation for a possible referendum on union with Russia, the military administration installed by the Kremlin in Kherson this month announced that it would form a Central Election Commission.
Western and Ukrainian officials say that regaining control of Kherson would require a vast number of troops and offensive weapons systems far more than Ukraine currently has.
The Kherson region is largely rural, but Kherson is a sprawling city that stretches on the Dnipro River. Recapturing it from Russian forces could involve fierce urban combat, resulting in heavy casualties in soldiers and property.
“We’re looking at Kherson like it’s the next Fallujah,” said Michael Maldonado, a 34-year-old former Marine from Kansas who joined the 28th Brigade. “There will be a lot of crazy fighting.”
The Ukrainian army will also have to take into account the large civilian population. The city lost about a third of its pre-war population of about 300,000, although an all-out assault involving bombing could seriously endanger civilian lives, something Ukrainian officials seem to realize.