Ukraine war: Kherson battle could be turning point in conflict

Russian and Ukrainian forces are battling near the country's largest river, the Dnieper

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For months, Russian and Ukrainian forces have struggled to advance against each other. They have battled for small towns and villages across thousands of kilometres of contested territory in the Donbas, the vast river basin of the Don.

But a major turning point in the conflict could be under way at Kherson, a southern Oblast — or administrative region — that is home to the city of the same name, one of Ukraine's largest cities under Russian occupation.

The Ukrainian offensive there, which began on August 30, has cut through a line of Russian defences — but the odds of success are far from certain. Russia says Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy casualties.

If the region can be retaken, it could mark a turning point in the conflict, putting Ukrainian forces within reach of Russian-occupied Crimea.

The city is sometimes called the “gateway to Crimea". With a pre-war population of around 300,000, it is cut off from the bulk of Russian forces by the wide Dnieper river, as well as a series of smaller rivers and lakes to its south.

This has allowed Ukrainian forces to move towards the city, pressing an estimated 20,000 Russian forces up against the river behind it.

The battle for Kherson

As per an analysis by Jack Watling of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, some of Russia’s best airborne units are in and around the city.

Two major bridges that could resupply the considerable Russian force on the northern bank of the river have been gradually damaged by US-supplied HIMARS missiles and are now unusable for armoured vehicles and other heavy supplies.

This has potentially created an opportunity for advancing Ukrainian forces — if the Russians cannot resupply, they may be forced to evacuate the city.

Constant resupply can mean the difference between victory and defeat. French forces suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam fighting Communist insurgents in 1954, when they could not be adequately resupplied.

British paratroopers also suffered disaster at Arnhem in the Netherlands in the Second World War, cut off from nearby US and British reinforcements who were struggling to take river crossings from the Germans.

Oleksandr Shulga looks at his destroyed house following a missile strike in Mykolaiv on August 29 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have begun a counter-attack to retake the southern city of Kherson, which is currently occupied by Russian troops, a local government official said on Monday. AFP

The British paratroopers eventually gave in to a superior German force when they ran out of ammunition.

Analysts say such an outcome in Kherson is far from certain, despite Russian supply requirements of about 200 kilograms per day, per soldier. This amount is a representative figure that includes all logistical support including food, medicine, ammunition water and other items such as radio batteries.

John Curry, an expert on warfare at Bath Spa University, said this could add up to 1,300 tonnes per day per brigade of 3,000 men in sustained combat.

Without adequate bridges, moving these supplies will be a considerable feat.

But Ukraine also has problems, analysts warn. This include logistical challenges such as the co-ordination of foreign arms supplies for a vast array of different weapon systems, a process co-ordinated by the US at their European military headquarters, in an office known as the International Donor Coordination Centre.

By contrast, Russia's military hardware is domestically manufactured and does not suffer this compatibility challenge of ammunition and parts.

Many Ukrainian units have also suffered exhaustion from months of combat against an enemy that has been able to deploy greater numbers of armoured vehicles and field artillery pieces, having taken heavy casualties over the summer up to 200 per day.

While Russian losses have also been heavy, analysts often say that offensive actions require higher numbers of men than defending forces — another challenge where the burden is on Ukraine.

Both sides are short on the manpower needed to fight across vast expanses of terrain, which was contested by millions of opposing soldiers between 1941 and 1944, when the Nazis were pushed out of Ukraine by the Soviets.

Why does Kherson matter?

Russia recently planned to annex Kherson, where about 25 per cent of the population speak Russian. Russia recently cancelled a referendum on the issue owing to security issues, its TASS news agency reported.

Analysts have warned that the outcome of Ukraine’s second major counteroffensive of the war could influence the level of Western support for the country, as Russia continues to withhold gas supplies to Europe.

If Ukraine cannot take the city and surrounding Oblast, it could create a sense among Western allies that the war has reached a stalemate, and that a political solution should be pursued.

Conversely, if the Ukrainians succeed in pushing Russian forces out of the city, it could result in a political boost for the government in Kyiv and help to guarantee further Western support.

Updated: September 06, 2022, 1:12 PM