Slowly but surely, the Ukrainians are getting the upper hand in the region of Kherson, a strategic city that is supposed to serve as a launchpad for the troops heading west.
If there is one thing that President Vladimir Putin’s regime has proved time and again in this war is that it can always outperform its own atrocities. The event where Ukrainian POWs were essentially executed in Donetsk over the weekend is the latest such example.
The Kremlin, long known for its mastery of provocation and with a track record of taking out captives, blamed Kyiv for the shelling of the detention center were the captives were held, but its explanation barely held any water: Not a single Russian was killed due to some miracle; experts who examined the pictures said that this looked like an inside job by the Russian captors; a conversation between two Russian fighters that was intercepted by Ukrainian services had one of them explain that the prisoners of war were mainly from the Azov Battalion, which has been described by Russian propaganda as Ukrainian Nazis; and if that is not enough, a Telegram channel affiliated with the Kremlin has already suggested in early June that an explosion could take place in the very center that was ultimately attacked.
The big question is why Russia chose to take this path while embarrassing the International Red Cross and the United Nations, which were tasked with ensuring the captives’ safety. One reason appears to stem from a domestic calculus: bowing to pressure by supporters of the war in Russia to execute the “Nazis.” With Russia having no meaningful gains on the ground, this demand got reinforced.
But the other goal, which is about Russia’s international posture, is more important. Hours before the explosion in the detention center, a gruesome video was leaked to social media showing a Russian mercenary torturing a Ukrainian captive and then executing him. It is likely that Russia wants to terrorize Ukrainians. Perhaps to a larger extent, Moscow seeks to get them riled up against President Volodymyr Zelensky for not securing the release of POWs, as well as to make the Ukrainian forces subscribe to Russia’s lower standards by using torture as a means of revenge. This, Russia presumably hopes, will supposedly show the world that “both sides are barbaric,” resulting in Ukraine losing diplomatic and military support and in public opinion.
Why has that happened? Because Russia desperately needs a ceasefire. Its forces are exhausted and depleted. Slowly but surely, the Ukrainians are getting the upper hand in the region of Kherson, the only city on the western bank of the Dnipro River where Russia has managed to fully take over. Russia has been diverting troops from the Donbas to Kherson, as it is considered paramount and is to be eventually annexed. Losing Kherson, which is supposed to be the launching pad for the next offensive if things stall, will be a devastating blow for Moscow.