How to Read Russian Reactions to Ukraine’s Kherson Counteroffensive

Kherson is the largest Ukrainian city that Russia has captured since 2015, and all eyes are on the counteroffensive that Ukraine announced on Monday. It’s too early to know how it’s going or how it will play out, but Russian commentators are already trying to downplay the Ukrainian effort.

In February and March 2022 Russian forces stormed north out of Crimea and rapidly captured the entire southern portion of the Kherson oblast (province), crossed the Dnieper river that bisects the province, and quickly captured Kherson city. Russian columns struck north toward the city of Mykolayiv, another coastal city about 40 miles away. But then the offensive stalled, Mykolayiv held, and Russian forces had to retreat back to the countryside surrounding Kherson city and a wide strip of territory hugging the Dnieper River to the northeast. 

This is where the lines have stayed in Kherson, more or less, for months. While Russian troops backed off of Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north and re-concentrated on eastern Ukraine, they stayed put around Kherson, and may have even been reinforced. A few months ago, I predicted that Putin might cut his losses around Kherson, pull out to the “left” bank of the Dnieper, and destroy the bridges over the river in order to prevent any Ukrainian attacks. This would have allowed the Russian army to refocus even more of its resources on eastern Ukraine. That didn’t happen. I suspect the Russians were unwilling to give up their prize city and/or were still planning on a renewed offensive across southern Ukraine and didn’t want to lose their only bridgehead. Instead, it was Ukrainians who started attacking the bridges when they got the American HIMARS systems in July.

If the Ukrainians can manage to destroy these bridges permanently and prevent Russia from maintaining pontoon bridges across the river, they could achieve logistical superiority in this part of Ukraine. Russia might have more rocket launchers and tanks and men defending Kherson than Ukraine can use to attack it, but the Russians will run out of ammunition, fuel, and food long before the Ukrainians do. It is unclear just how many Russian troops are left on the wrong side of the river, but if the Ukrainians can pull off this offensive it could result in major losses of already underresourced Russian troops, and maybe even a significant number of prisoners. 

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