Russia forces have “definitively lost the initiative” in the battle to seize eastern Ukraine and now face a major offensive in the south that is gathering momentum, western officials have disclosed.
Using US and British-supplied long-range artillery, the Ukrainians have been able to destroy vital Russian bridges close to the strategically important city of Kherson.
The offensive has seen Ukrainian troops cross the Dnipro River and they are now advancing, threatening to cut off thousands of Russian troops close to the “crown jewel” city of Kherson.
The Russians had suffered “eye-watering attrition in some units”, one of the western officials said, and have lost more than a third of their entire national tank force in fighting since the invasion began on February 24. It is believed that Ukrainian losses have declined from 100 a day to about 30.
But there are growing concerns that Moscow may resort to using weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear missiles, if defeat looks imminent.
In an extraordinarily upbeat assessment of Kyiv’s ability to oust the invaders, officials told journalists that “we can now say that Russia has definitively lost the initiative in the battle for the Donbas”.
The Russian offensive has been grinding in the east for four months, taking just two cities but at a high cost in men and arms for a relatively limited advance.
It now appears that the Russians are digging in, while across the battlefield there are serious issues of ammunition supply and low morale.
But it is in the south that the Ukrainians appear to be having the greatest success, using long-range missiles to destroy bridges and arms dumps.
The city of Kherson, the first to fall to Russia early in the campaign, is now in their sights.
“Russia's presence west of the Dnipro now looks increasingly vulnerable,” the official said. “Kherson, the crown of its occupation, is virtually cut off and its loss would severely undermine Russia attempts to paint the occupation as a success.”
He confirmed that the Ukrainians had used their western-supplied missiles to destroy a key bridge near Kherson.
According to Pentagon officials, the Himars multiple launch rocket system and GMLRS missiles have destroyed more than a hundred high-value targets, including command posts, ammunition depots, air-defence sites, radar and long-range artillery positions. The ability to “shoot and scoot” means that Ukrainian artillery losses to counter-battery fire have been limited.
“The Ukrainians' Kherson counteroffensive is now gathering pace and yesterday Ukrainian forces highly likely established a bridgehead south of a river that is a tributary of the Dnipro,” the official said.
“I don't want to overstate it … but seizing a bridgehead is militarily significant,” he added.
It was not known how many troops had managed to get across but it appeared they were in the thousands.
There was also a question over whether Russia’s generals with their monolithic “command culture” would be unable to “rise to the concurrent changes of a restored offensive in the east and the dynamic threat in the south”.
While Russia is still able to replace its lost equipment, it is reportedly struggling to recruit enough personnel, and resorting to more desperate measures to get troops, including from prisons.
President Vladimir Putin has previously threatened the West with nuclear strikes if it attempts to intervene. However, it is also in Russian military doctrine to resort to nuclear weapons early on if its territory is threatened.
Asked by The National if this was a concern, the western official said: “Russia has other tools available which it could choose to employ which would escalate the situation”.
This could be chemical or biological weapons “which are deeply alarming and would provoke a worldwide moral response”.
He added: “It comes down to how threatened does the Russian state feel. The more threatened or cornered, it becomes the more likely it will be to reach for essentially the types of tools that you're talking about.”