Threat follows rocket strike on key bridge in occupied city that will make it much harder for Moscow to move armour in – or take troops out.
Russian troops will be “annihilated” unless they retreat from the southern city of Kherson, Ukraine warned on Wednesday after it struck a key bridge with US-supplied rockets.
Kyiv’s strafing of the Antonovsky bridge with precise, long-range Himars rocket launchers marks the opening salvo in Ukraine’s counter-offensive to retake the strategic city, likely to be the site of the next big battle as fighting in the Donbas slows.
The 1000-metre-long bridge, which Russian forces rely on to resupply the occupied city, has been left “completely unusable”, according to a Western official.
That will make it much harder for Moscow to move heavy armour into Kherson – or take its troops out in personnel carriers.
“Ukraine’s Kherson counteroffensive is now gathering pace,” the official added. “As with so many wars, one central part of the campaign is boiling down to a race to seize and destroy bridges.”
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry warned “Russian occupiers in Kherson” to “retreat or be annihilated” in a post on Twitter, adding “the choice is theirs”.
“Occupiers should learn how to swim across the Dnipro River,” Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter.
“Or (they) should leave Kherson while it is still possible. There may not be a third warning.”
Ukraine has struck the bridge twice before.
Footage released by the Russia-installed puppet government in Kherson on Wednesday showed blast holes in the middle of the road on the Antonovsky bridge with rods sticking out at odd angles.
The destruction of the bridge over the Dnipro River threatens potential Russian supplies and reinforcements coming in from the rest of the Kherson region and the heavily militarised Crimean peninsula that Russia used as a launchpad for the invasion.
“The Antonovsky bridge has been hit a few times, we have stopped the traffic,” said Kirill Stremousov, an official in the administration.
But, posing for cameras on the bridge, he sought to assuage fears of a blockade, saying the attack would have no effect on “hostilities” and that Russian forces had built pontoon bridges to bring in supplies. Russia has also organised ferry crossings to resupply its troops while the bridge is unusable.
But Russian military bloggers said the ongoing attacks were causing big problems for Moscow’s army.
“First, the consequences of the shelling of the bridge have a cumulative effect, that is, each subsequent attack does more damage than the previous one, not only due to an increase in the number of hits but also due to an increasing weakening of the canvas structure,” wrote Voennyi Osvedomitel.
“Secondly, alternatives in the form of pontoons and ferries are vulnerable to enemy fire many times more than a large bridge, only one MLRS missile will be enough to disable them.”
Others pointed out that it did not bode well for those in Kherson – both Russian troops and residents.
“The prospects for the Kherson People’s Republic are becoming somewhat uncertain,” said analyst Anatoly Nesmiyan.
“Now the Armed Forces of Ukraine are solving the problem of systematically whipping up panic in the liberated territories and depleting Russian air defence, which cannot cope with massive strikes,” said a post on war reporter channel Rybar.
“For an internal audience in Ukraine and the West, a media picture is being created of the systematic reputational failure of the Russian Federation, whose army is not able to protect the liberated territory of the Kherson region.”
Ukraine said that the attack was meant to damage but not wholly destroy the bridge.
“We are not ruining infrastructure: we are ruining our enemy’s plans,” said Nataliya Gumenyuk, spokeswoman for the Southern Defence Forces of Ukraine.
“The work of our artillery is so precise and delicate that it is mostly aimed at demoralising (enemy) troops.”
Serhiy Khlan, a lawmaker from Kherson in exile, hailed the attack as a landmark step that could enable a counter-offensive in the south.
“Kherson and the whole of Ukraine have been waiting for this morning,” he said on Facebook on Wednesday.
“We are much closer to the liberation of the entire region.”
With Moscow’s advance in the east largely stalled, Ukraine has been using advanced Western weaponry to push back against Russian forcesacross the country.
The long-range Himars rocket systems have destroyed 50 Russian ammo dumps, Kyiv announced this week, and Ukraine’s daily casualty rate has drastically fallen with a reduction in the ferocity of Moscow’s bombardments.
Russia’s army has also lost “over a third of their total national tank fleet”, according to the Western official.
Fighting in the Donbas has ground to a stalemate, analysts say.
“We can say once again that Russia has definitively lost the initiative in the battle for Donbas,” said the Western official.
While it looks like Moscow will take the Donetsk region “in the next several months”, the official added, “the cost Russia incurs for gain remains remarkable and there are very serious worries over stocks of Russian munitions and morale.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine is getting ready to resume grain exports after a landmark deal was signed last week to end a months-long hiatus caused by the Russian invasion.
Officials from the UN, Ukraine and Russia gathered on Wednesday in Istanbul to open the joint coordination centre that should ensure the safe passage of 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.