Ukrainian military activity suggests Kherson counteroffensive is underway

KYIV, Ukraine — A long-awaited Ukrainian move to retake the Russian-occupied swath of south of the country appears to have begun Monday, according to both Ukrainian and pro-Russian sources. However, independently verifiable information from the battlefield is difficult to come by.

Reminding both Ukrainians and curious Western observers of the stakes involved, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky cautioned that people will not “hear specifics” about Ukrainian military plans “from any truly responsible person,” adding “because this is war.”

Ukraine’s government has adopted a menacing and derisive tone about its operation. Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s office, tweeted Monday: “Today, the only possible option for negotiations with Russia is being conducted by a special Ukrainian delegation in the southern and other directions of the frontline. ‘Negotiations’ are going well.”

A rally against the Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine
A rally against the Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine. (Olexandr Chornyi/AP)

The day began like many others this summer, with multiple Ukrainian High Mobility Artillery Systems (HIMARS) strikes on Russian positions around Kherson, a strategic, Russian-controlled city in southern Ukraine. Kyiv has said that its artillery campaign over the past month has damaged or destroyed roads and bridges to make key areas around the city impassable by heavy equipment. This claim was confirmed by Igor Girkin, a U.S. and EU-sanctioned FSB officer who years ago commanded Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The tone of much of that commentary is pessimistic about Russia’s war machine and critical of the Kremlin’s evidence-free cheerleading.

The apparent offensive escalated beyond artillery strikes in the morning, with infantry and armor advancing against the Russian lines. By midday there were signs of progress, with Ukrainian sources claiming that some Russian and Kremlin-allied forces fled in the face the Ukrainian advance.

Speaking to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity, a senior official in the Ukrainian military said the offensive was indeed underway. “Obvious progress would be hard to deny,” the official said.

Ukrainian artillerymen in the military assembly center check the weapons and special equipment to make them ready before they go to their duties at the frontline in Kherson, Ukraine on July 15, 2022. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Ukrainian artillerymen check equipment in the Kherson region, July 2022. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Pro-Russian bloggers and combatants also indicated that a significant Ukrainian operation was ocurring.

By mid-afternoon, these pro-Russian chroniclers on social media were reporting the loss of territory to Ukrainian forces. “Gray Zone,” a Telegram account linked to the Russian “Wagner” group of mercenaries, announced “three successful attacks for the enemy. One of the successful ones was from the Andreevka-Lozovoy direction, as a result of which the Armed Forces of Ukraine advanced almost 6 kilometers and occupied the village of Sukhoi Stavok.”

According to Russia’s state media service RIA Novosti, workers in Nova Kakhovka were ordered to go to bomb shelters as Ukrainian artillery pounded Russian positions in and around the city.

A Ukrainian military source confirmed to CNN that the villages of Nova Dmytrivka, Arkhanhelske, Tomyna Balka, and Pravdyne had been liberated by the Ukrainian military.

KYIV, UKRAINE - AUGUST 23, 2022 - President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a joint press meeting with President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda in Konstytutsii (Constitution) Square outside the Verkhovna Rada building on National Flag Day, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. (Photo credit should read Kaniuka Ruslan/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Kaniuka Ruslan/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The anchor of that region, Kherson, was the first major population center to fall to the Russian advance on March 2. The Kremlin started laying groundwork to annex the city, offering Russian citizenship to residents and attempting to convert the local currency to the ruble. The city itself is a major industrial hub and an important port and center of shipbuilding, while the larger region is an important agricultural center, renowned for its watermelons.

Under Russian occupation, the regional capital has become a hotbed of insurgency, with daily protests metamorphosing into a spate of car bombings and targeted assassinations of collaborators and members of the Russian army. Signs posted all over the city have depicted images of Russian soldiers with their throats being slit.

Nor were these idle threats.

On Aug. 28, Oleksiy Kovalyov, a former member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party who had been appointed as deputy chairman for agriculture by the Russian occupation regime, was shot dead at his home by suspected Ukrainian operatives. Earlier in the month, on Aug. 5, Volodymyr Saldo, the Russian-appointed governor of Kherson Oblast, was hospitalized, with many speculating he’d been poisoned. The next day, Vitaliy Hura, the Russians’ handpicked deputy mayor of Nova Kakhovka, another city near Kherson, was fatally shot while exiting his home.

Russian soldiers
Russian soldiers on guard as a group of foreign journalists visits Kherson. (AP)

Even as Ukraine suffered losses in grinding artillery exchanges and city-by-city fights in the country’s east, officials continued to stress that their main objective was defending Kherson. Two high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Defense told Yahoo News in June, before losing the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Donbas to Russia, that their timetable indicated the start of a major counteroffensive by the end of the summer.

Monday’s events may signal that the timetable has indeed been kept.

Though it is still early to make an assessment of Ukraine’s long-term intent and capability, two unnamed U.S. Defense Department officials said on Monday that Kyiv has a good chance of retaking Kherson. Although John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, declined to characterize what was happening as a counteroffensive, emphasizing the localized nature of what Ukraine’s been unleashing on the Russians in the area for weeks.

Last week, CNN reported that the Ukrainian strategy so far has been built around a Resistance Operating Concept (ROC), or sophisticated form of partisan warfare, adopted by Ukrainian special forces and developed in concert with U.S. and European militaries.

Explosions at a Russian military airbase in Crimea
Explosions at a Russian military airbase in Crimea. (UGC via AP)

The yield of ROC has been a relentless campaign of death by a thousand cuts, depleting the Kremlin’s supply of soldiers and equipment over the months, while also terrorizing Russian occupiers and thwarting their attempts to govern seized territory.

Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized and annexed in 2014, has in the last several weeks seen multiple, mysterious attacks on military facilities by Ukrainian forces hitherto unable or unwilling to strike so far behind enemy lines. The strikes, including one on Saki Airbase on Aug. 14, destroyed more than half of the Black Sea Fleet’s naval air force and prompted speculation that Ukraine might now possess long-range ballistic or cruise missiles.

The preliminaries for the Kherson offensive have also included a constant bombardment on the western bank of the Dnipro River, which bisects the region, with long-range, precise, Western-supplied artillery platforms such as the HIMARS.

Ukrainian servicemen
Ukrainian servicemen prepare to fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied howitzer in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

On a near daily basis, command-and-control facilities and air defense platforms have been destroyed with these weapons. Another repeat target is the Antonivskiy Bridge, without which Russians would struggle to both reinforce their troops occupying the city of Kherson, and to potentially withdraw if needed.

Attempts to repair the bridge have been beset by an incoming clockwork fusillade. Overhead images examined by Yahoo News show a badly cratered blacktop and smoke rising from a Russian barge, which was brought in to circumvent the HIMARS strikes on the bridge.

Vitaly Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv Oblast, the region northwest of Kherson, joked on Twitter that “the demand for inflatable boats and mattresses on the right bank of the Dnipro has increased sharply.”