Ukrainian forces could make a “substantial breakthrough” to seize the key city of Kherson in the coming days, western officials have said.
A major counteroffensive to retake the city was launched on Monday, with several thrusts aiming to strand 20,000 Russian troops on the western bank of the Dnipro River.
If successful, the recapture of Kherson will prove a major tactical success for Kyiv, proving that with western training and equipment, it can take back seized territory.
It would also be a strategic blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, further undermining his international standing and denying Russia a major port on the Black Sea.
With a complete operational news blackout in the southern region during Ukraine’s counteroffensive, it is difficult for media to assess the progress of the campaign.
But in a press briefing, western officials suggested that Ukrainian troops were close to making significant gains.
“The offensive that they have initiated has already made some tactical gains,” a senior official told The National. “There are certainly times that the Russians are dropping back.”
The offensive, which opened with limited artillery strikes three months ago, aims to “grind the enemy down”, though this will take time, with commanders not yet “anticipating a gigantic breakthrough”.
Another senior official suggested that the “signs are good at the moment”.
“Over the last couple of days, we have seen some limited Ukrainian territory gains,” he said.
“We've got to let this mature and see whether Ukraine is able to achieve some substantial breakthrough … and that will become apparent in the next few days.”
The key to Ukraine's success has been the US-supplied Himars and British MLRS precision rocket systems that have destroyed bridges over the Dnipro as well as Russian ammunition dumps and command centres.
The officials said they would “absolutely guarantee” that supplies of the weapons would continue and they were in constant dialogue with defence companies to ensure their production output met the high demand.
The missiles were causing “considerable dismay” to Russian commanders who were struggling to adapt to Ukraine's “precision long-range strike capability”.
By contrast, the Russians were finding it “very, very difficult to replace” their precision missiles stockpile as a result of sanctions and heavy use during the early days of war.
There have also been arguments between Russian politicians and commanders over the war’s direction, with “ample evidence of questioning and uncertainty”, the officials said.
If Kherson falls, it could open the way for Ukraine to push towards Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
“Let's take it one step at a time and see how Ukrainian forces do over the next few days before jumping to admirable but far more ambitious goals,” an official said.
Defence analysts have also said that an assault on Crimea might be considered an attack on sovereign Russian territory, triggering fears of nuclear strike.
As yet, there have been no signs that Moscow is readying its Strategic Rocket Forces, officials said.
Group of Seven finance ministers are expected to announce a deal on a Russian oil price cap to reduce Moscow’s revenue from crude oil sales.
The official said there was no question that Moscow was benefiting from high energy prices but this is not sustainable in the long term, as “countries are clearly shifting away from and will not go back to reliance on Russian hydrocarbons”.
Britain’s National Security Adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove said in a statement that Ukraine’s resistance had “inspired the world and shown huge courage in the face of brutality”, and its armed forces were now determined “to retake their sovereign territory”.
“The risks around this terrible conflict continue as Putin finds he can’t make progress, his forces suffer heavy losses and sanctions continue to degrade his war machine,” he said.
“Our support for Ukraine and its people will not waver.”