Why stop now? Ukraine seen pressing advantage after Kherson victory

View shows destroyed military vehicles after Russia's retreat from Kherson, in Kherson

By Jonathan Landay and Tom Balmforth

KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) -After recapturing Kherson from Russian forces and assured of unstinting U.S. support, Ukraine is well positioned to push its advantage in the war rather than accept frozen frontlines through winter, some military analysts said.

The strategic and symbolic victory comes as fierce fighting continues further north along more than 1,000 km of front lines, a reminder that even with the vast Dnipro River now separating the enemies around Kherson, other objectives remain in play.

"Ukraine has the initiative and momentum and is dictating to the Russians where and when the next fight will be," said Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer.

That could include refocusing the offensive closer to Bakhmut in the industry-heavy eastern region of Donbas, where Russia has itself been trying to break through for months.

"The winter will slow things but not stop them - the Ukrainians will be well prepared to keep fighting through the winter, the Russians will be less well prepared to survive the winter cold," he said.

Mile after mile of abandoned trenches along the road to the southern port city of Kherson spoke of the miserable living conditions some Russian forces had to endure on the right bank of Kherson before their retreat.

Reuters witnessed trenches that were narrow, muddy and often exposed to the elements, in contrast to the wooden-floored trenches of the Ukrainians, some equipped with internet and flat-screen TVs.

"Whatever (the Ukrainians) do, it will be carefully planned, kept secret and will likely be extremely well executed," Ingram added.

Retired U.S. General Ben Hodges said there would be no need for Ukraine to rush across the Dnipro while it secures Kherson on the right (west) bank and pulls up artillery to bear down on Russian forces defending the approaches to annexed Crimea.

Some residents in Kherson, meanwhile, are concerned about the risk of Russian shelling of the city once its forces regroup further east.

According to Hodges, Russians concentrated in the south could be exposed to a thrust from Ukraine's other wing, driving down from the direction of Kharkiv towards the devastated city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

"They (the Russians) will have trenches, but it is wide open terrain (in the south), easy to target Russians there," he said.

"This Kherson fire support base becomes the anchor to support further manoeuvre by the left flank as it fights its way ... towards Mariupol, Berdyansk, and Melitopol."

TALKS OR NO TALKS?

Ukrainian forces reached the centre of Kherson on Friday after forcing a stunning Russian retreat from the only regional capital they had captured and one they declared to be a part of Russia.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday that the United States would continue to support Ukraine militarily "to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield" and would not seek to tell it what to do.

"This whole notion, I think, in the Western press of 'When is Ukraine going to negotiate?' misses the underlying fundamentals, which is that Russia continues ... to make these outlandish claims about annexed Russian territory," he said.

He was referring to recent reports quoting officials suggesting Moscow's recent setbacks on the battlefield could provide Ukraine an opportunity to consider negotiating with Russia from a position of strength.

America's top general, Mark Milley, when asked about the prospects for diplomacy at an event last week, noted that the early refusal to negotiate in World War One compounded human suffering and led to millions more casualties.

"So when there's an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved ... seize the moment," Milley told the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in Kherson on Monday that Ukraine was ready for peace, but only on its terms that would restore all occupied territory: "You see our strong army. We are step by step coming through our country, through the temporarily occupied territories."

On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it was Ukraine's decision what conditions it can accept to end the war.

"It is for Ukraine to decide what kind of terms are acceptable. It is for us to support them," he said during a joint news conference with Dutch government officials in the Hague.

"We should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia ... They still control large parts of Ukraine ... What we should do is strengthen Ukraine's hand," Stoltenberg added.

(Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Tomasz Janowski)