Don’t get too excited about unconfirmed reports of Ukrainian forces surrounding hundreds, or even thousands, of Russian troops in a town 60 miles northeast of the port of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
But the flimsy rumors swirling around the purported pocket of surrounded Russian troops in Vysokopillya belie the real pressure the Russians are under along the southern front of Russia’s five-month-old wider war on Ukraine.
Having expended the last of its prewar combat power capturing the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, the Russian army has hit pause on major offensive operations.
The Kremlin is busy raising volunteer battalions to make good the tens of thousands of soldiers the army has buried or sent to hospitals since late February. Ukrainian commanders have taken advantage of the Russian pause—and the simultaneous arrival of U.S.-made rockets—to ratchet up strikes on Russian radars, command posts and supply lines.
The rocket attacks are helping to destabilize Russian defenses. And in the south around Kherson, that’s helped Ukrainian forces to inch toward the occupied port city with a pre-war population of 300,000, extending a tentative counteroffensive that began back in May.
It was apparent months ago that the Kremlin’s intensive focus on Donbas risked creating vulnerabilities elsewhere. At the peak of the fighting in Donbas in early July, three-quarters of the Russian army’s roughly 110 front-line battalions in Ukraine were in Donbas. Just a handful of battalions defended Russian gains in and around Kherson.
The Ukrainian army also concentrated its best forces in Donbas, of course—but not at the expense of the southern front. In late May, Ukrainian troops began pushing south toward Kherson, then 40 or so miles from the line of contact.
Two months later, Kyiv’s southern counteroffensive has pushed to within 15 miles of Kherson’s northernmost neighborhoods. A parallel Ukrainian effort farther east established a lodgement south of the Inhulets River outside Davydiv Brid.
The Ukrainians didn’t move quickly. And there’s no reason to believe they recently surrounded as many as 2,000 Russian troops in Vysokopillya.
But their accelerating momentum now is hard to ignore. Increasingly well-armed with new howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems provided by the United States and other allies—and supported by the surviving pilots and planes of the small but stubborn Ukrainian air force—Kyiv’s troops in the south now are holding at risk Russian forces south of the Dnieper River.
That wide river, to which the Inhulets is a tributary, winds south and west through southern Ukraine, buttressing the southern edge of Kherson before emptying into the Black Sea.
On Tuesday, a missile battery belonging to the Ukrainian air force—apparently an S-300—reportedly shot down a Russian air force Su-35 fighter patrolling over Nova Kakhovka on the southern bank of the Dnieper, 50 miles east of Kherson and 35 miles south of the Inhulets.
The Ukrainian battery either pulled off a long-distance shot at the edge of the S-300’s range. Or it traveled far enough south to put Nova Kakhovka within easy reach.
The Dnieper is a problem for Russian logisticians. The best and most efficient way to move troops and supplies into Kherson and areas north of Kherson is across a pair of bridges spanning the river near the city. “Control of Dnieper crossings is likely to become a key factor in the outcome of fighting in the region,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces—artillery or rockets, most likely—struck the Antonovskiy Bridge, damaging but not dropping the span.
“They haven’t destroyed them yet,” Mike Martin, a fellow with the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, wrote in reference to the Dnieper bridges. “They’ve just cratered them, making them unsuitable for heavy logistics. But if I were a Russian soldier in Kherson, I would be pretty scared right now.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Ukraine obviously wants Kherson, and its access to the Black Sea, back under its control. Russia obviously aims to keep its hold on the city.
But it’s unclear the depleted Russian army still possesses the means of defending Kherson—or can raise fresh battalions fast enough to reinforce the city as the Ukrainian army slowly approaches.
Of course, the Ukrainian army also lost thousands of troops in Donbas, so it’s unclear it’s in the best position for a major southern offensive unless, and until, it too can form fresh battalions.
But even in its battered state, the Ukrainian army has managed to maneuver toward Kherson. It’s possible the fight for the city itself could come soon. “I would be watching Kherson very closely over the next 10 days,” Martin wrote.