More strategic Russian retreat signals long fight ahead in Kherson

Ukrainian Major Volodymyr Voloshyn watches a military drone operator, Arthur, as he communicates with an artillery brigade to direct their fire in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine on October 5.
Ukrainian Major Volodymyr Voloshyn watches a military drone operator, Arthur, as he communicates with an artillery brigade to direct their fire in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine on October 5. (Heidi Levine/FTWP)

MYKOLAIV REGION, Ukraine — The drone operator ignored the occasional thunder of outgoing artillery in the distance and kept his eyes focused on the computer screen in front of him, waiting for the burst of smoke to appear. His thumbs nudged the joystick left, then right, before switching to his cellphone screen to indicate where the artillery should aim next.

About five kilometers from Ukraine’s southern front line, US-supplied M777 howitzers pounded Russian forces who refused to yield any more ground.

Another soldier, whose call sign is “Dobriy”, then informed his comrades of this Ukrainian special forces unit that their drone was not the only one in the sky. He had just been told that a Russian Orlan reconnaissance UAV was heading in that direction, and if spotted, bombing would surely follow. The day before, the field behind this short line of trenches was littered with rockets. “It was especially for me,” Dobriy said with a smile.

Its commander, Colonel Roman Kostenko, now seemed worried. “Should we leave? he asked, referring to himself and the Washington Post reporters he had brought with him. “Too late,” replied Arthur, the drone operator, still staring at the screen in front of him.

A day after Ukrainian forces reclaimed more territory in the southern regions of Kherson and Mykolaiv, jubilation over a breakthrough in this part of the frontline was tempered by anxiety over a tough fight expected .

The Kyiv army here has pushed back the Russians by tens of kilometers in some places after struggling to advance for months. But after Ukraine’s remarkably successful counteroffensive in the northeast Kharkiv region, soldiers stationed near the southern front warned that the situation remained tense. Kherson is too important, politically and militarily, for the Russians to pull out as disorderly as in Kharkiv, they said.

“It’s not Kharkiv,” Kostenko said. “There they left all their ammunition and vehicles and fled. Here we don’t even have a lot of trophies. They just pulled out of the fight, took everything with them to their new position, and dig in again.

What the Ukrainians have observed is an orderly Russian withdrawal from certain towns and villages in what could be a preparation to tighten the front line around the city of Kherson, the only regional capital that Moscow’s forces have captured so far. of their invasion last February, and the nearby town of Nova Kakhovka. It is home to a hydroelectric plant that also controls a vital water supply for Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Seizing the plant and restoring the flow of water, which Ukraine had cut off, was one of the Russia’s main military objectives in the early days of the invasion.

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The Ukrainian advances come as the Russian force finds itself in an increasingly precarious position in and around Kherson. The city is located on the only slice of territory that the Russian army controls west of the Dnieper. The terrain is flat, which makes it particularly difficult for Russia to defend.

The occupied slice of land is connected to the rest of the territory under Russian control by two main crossings over the Dnieper – the Antonovsky Bridge in Kherson, which is badly damaged, and the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, which lies about 45 miles east. is and remains passable.

Russian forces risk being cut off at Kherson – surrounded by Ukrainian forces on three sides and the river on the fourth – if the Ukrainians manage to advance close enough to the river to make it impassable.

“If the Ukrainian military manages to place artillery within range of major bridges and river crossings, the overall Russian position could become untenable,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at Virginia-based research group CNA.

Prudent military strategy would call for retreating to the river rather than risk being surrounded or besieged at Kherson. But the Russians are likely to fight to hold Kherson because it is the capital of a region that President Vladimir Putin claims to have annexed.

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The city and its surroundings would also serve as a useful bridgehead on the west bank of the river for the Russians, should they manage to rebuild their combat power and go on the offensive seeking to capture the port cities of Mykolaiv and ‘Odessa.

“We believe it is unlikely that the Russian leadership will allow a complete withdrawal from Kherson for political reasons,” said a Western official who insisted on anonymity to brief reporters on the sensitive security information. “So this situation in the south could become increasingly messy with, potentially, a more desperate Russian force with its back to the river.”

“It will not be an easy race through unconstrained territory,” the official added. “They will have a challenge there.”

So far, the Ukrainians have made the most progress pushing the Russians back northeast of Kherson. The speed at which the Russian front could collapse depends on whether or not the Russians set up echelon defenses to fall back to between the front and the city.

Unlike Kharkiv, where local militiamen and Russian National Guardsmen mostly manned a rapidly falling front, Russia put more seasoned forces – paratroopers and marines – in and around Kherson. They are tougher opponents, but even these units now seem disjointed due to heavy casualties.

Captain Andriy Pidlisnyy said that his Ukrainian military unit in the Mykolaiv region had recently captured a Russian prisoner who explained Moscow’s manpower problems thus: In the prisoner’s three-tank crew, all three belonged to different units within the Russian forces.

The prisoner, a paratrooper, was the driver. The commander was a mercenary from Wagner’s paramilitary team. And the shooter was mobilized from the occupied Lugansk region, which is under the control of Kremlin proxies.

“If even at the tank level they have such a hodgepodge of different units, then at the level where there is a company, a battalion and a brigade, it is clear that there can be no normal coordination”, said Pidlisnyy.

Ukraine is now seeking to take advantage of a key transition period for Russia, before reinforcements from Putin’s recent mobilization arrive at the front. Near the recently liberated settlement of Davydiv Brid, there was a flurry of road activity on Wednesday as Ukrainian forces moved pontoon bridges, self-propelled howitzers and armored vehicles. Kostenko’s drone unit prepared homemade explosives in recycled soda cans to drop on the fields around Davydiv Brid – an inventive mine-clearing tactic.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive, which relies on two fronts, is now moving so fast that even soldiers on the ground are struggling to keep up.

“Is Snihurivka already ours?” Kostenko asked his deputy, referring to a town in the Mykolaiv region that has been a stronghold of Russian forces since the early days of the war.

“Almost”, Maj. Volodymyr Voloshyn replied.

Retaking Davydiv Brid and Snihurivka would give the Ukrainians access to roads leading deeper into the Kherson region and add pressure on the Russians from the northwest.

“Soon we will be in Crimea,” Voloshyn said deadpan.

The men themselves are from southern Ukraine, as is the rest of their 29-man unit. Kostenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, divides his time between here in Kyiv and international trips to lobby for Ukraine to receive more weapons. During a recent visit to Washington, he asked members of Congress for more tanks and armored personnel carriers.

His own hometown of Charivne in the Kherson region is still busy. On Wednesday, staring at a tablet with a map of the village, he told a drone operator where his house is. “Whatever you do, don’t let anyone shoot there,” he joked.

Evicting Russian soldiers from his backyard is a personal priority. And while he doesn’t expect it to be easy, recent wins have convinced all of Ukraine that it is possible.

“The success of the counter-offensive in Kharkiv has really motivated the fighters here,” Kostenko said. “The instinct is to be cautious, but sometimes you have to put your foot in it to see that it’s not so scary and that you can go further. When what happened in Kharkiv showed that we could do it, the result came here too. We started moving forward.

Sonne reported from Washington. Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees on Friday appendix four occupied regions of Ukraine, following referendums widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The answer: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions against Russia, in response to annexations, targeting government officials and their family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials, and defense supply networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said on Friday that Ukraine apply for an “accelerated ascent” in NATOin an apparent response to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization September 21 to call as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic attempt to reverse the setbacks of its war against Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 peoplemost men who have been subjected to serviceand new protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine rises a successful counter-offensive this forced a major Russian retreat into the northeastern region of Kharkiv early September, as troops fled the towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the war began — here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as good as what people around the world have given.

Read our full coverage of the Russia–Ukraine War. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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