A Ukrainian air force MiG-29 fighter shot down one of the Russian air force’s best jets—an Su-35—near Russian-occupied Kherson on Friday, according to the Ukrainian defense ministry.
The dramatic shoot-down, which reportedly took place as the Su-35 was chasing down Ukrainian attack planes, signaled an even more dramatic development on the ground.
Ukrainian army formations supported by American-made M-777 howitzers crossed the Inhulets River around the town of Davydiv Brid, 50 miles northeast of Kherson. The Russians fell back to a trio of towns a few miles to the southwest. Towns whose defenses the Ukrainian general staff described as “unfavorable.”
It’s possible Ukraine’s 5th Tank Brigade led the assault. That brigade with its 100 or so T-72 tanks for three months helped guard Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic port on the western Black Sea, from a possible amphibious assault.
But with much of the Russian Black Sea Fleet rusting on the seabed, Odesa isn’t in any immediate danger of a seaborne attack. Observers closely watched the 5th Tank, wondering when it might roll east to join the fighting around Kherson. That time finally may have come.
It’s a long way from Davydiv Brid to Kherson, which Russian forces captured intact early in the war. For the Ukrainians, crossing the river is the first step in what could be a difficult march.
But the prize could be worth the cost. Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to organize a sham “referendum” in Kherson as a pretext for declaring the city and its surroundings officially part of Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is equally eager to deprive Putin of this propaganda coup by liberating the city and its 290,000 residents and, in the process, relieving some of the pressure on the free southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa.
The timing of Ukraine’s counteroffensive is interesting. After burying as many as 15,000 of its soldiers while trying and failing to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north, the Kremlin in recent weeks has concentrated in the east the best of its 110 or so remaining front-line battalion tactical groups in Ukraine.
The fighting in the east is hard and bloody. Russian troops and mercenaries attacking south from Lyman and north from Popasna slowly are advancing across a pocket of Ukrainian-held territory anchored in the east by the city of Severodonetsk, Kyiv’s last stronghold on the far side of the Donets River.
Moscow clearly aims to cut off Severodonetsk, starve and destroy its thousands-strong garrison then declare a sort of victory in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, much of which has been under Russian and separatist control since 2014.
“If Russia did succeed in taking over these areas, it would highly likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantive political achievement and be portrayed to the Russian people as justifying the invasion,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.
But the Russian assault on the Severodonetsk salient may have come at a cost to the wider campaign. It’s possible the Russians have left the Kherson sector relatively weakly defended. As more of the best troops and tanks shifted north to Donbas, the Kremlin shipped in 60-year-old—and thoroughly obsolete—T-62 tanks as paltry reinforcements for the depleted southern forces.
“The T-62s will almost certainly be particularly vulnerable to anti-tank weapons and their presence on the battlefield highlights Russia’s shortage of modern, combat-ready equipment,” according to the U.K. Defense Ministry.
How far and how fast the Ukrainians advance toward Kherson remains to be seen. The open terrain is difficult for any attacker. And the Russians had time to dig trenches. “They are preparing for protracted conflict in this area and digging in to repel likely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensives,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. explained on Thursday.
Air power and artillery could prove decisive. Ukraine’s attack planes, screened by MiG-29s, are supporting the ground troops along the southern front. But the Russians have countered with fresh batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, the general staff in Kyiv warned.
Ukraine’s new M-777 howitzers, firing from safely inside friendly lines, can bombard Russian positions along the Kherson front as deeply as the city itself. But Russia, despite shifting many of its guns to the east, might still have an overall artillery advantage in the south.