The aim of this phase of the counteroffensive is to cut off Russian forces at river level and force them to surrender the city of Kherson, they said. At this point, crossing the river would be “very difficult to do”, one of the officials said.
Ukrainian officials announced on Monday the operation to liberate the territories occupied by Russia in the south of the country, after weeks of counterattacks against towns in the Kherson region. Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed that they had violated Russia’s “first line of defense” near Kherson.
John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, did not confirm that the counteroffensive had begun and referred questions to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But he pointed out that Kyiv has been waging a more “localized” counter-offensive for weeks.
“The idea of going on the attack is not new to the Ukrainians, and they have fought the fight against the Russians inside their country,” Kirby said, noting that HIMARS, in particular, has makes a significant difference in combat.
The system, along with precision-guided rockets, enabled Ukraine to strike behind Russian lines and pushed Moscow into defensive positions, Kirby said.
The conflict offered the United States the rare opportunity to assess HIMARS capability and that of Russian defenses in action, one of the DoD officials said. US officials are “a little surprised” at the performance of HIMARS – and how weak Russian defensive capabilities are in the face of attack, the person said.
“Ukrainians are doing very well with what they do with them and how they employ them, but we’re also learning that they’re able to get through a lot of Russian systems,” the person said.
The next question, one of the DoD officials said, is whether Russian forces decide to return captured territory in the south or reposition units from the east.
Kirby said Moscow had already had to withdraw resources from combat in the Donbass, where Russia has concentrated most of its forces, due to reports that Ukraine could go on the offensive in the south.
“They had to wear down units from certain areas in the east and Donbass to respond to what they clearly believe was an imminent threat of a counter-offensive,” Kirby said. “From a strategic point of view, this has already had an effect on Russian military capability inside Ukraine.”
Upstream from Kherson, a team from the United Nations nuclear watchdog is expected to inspect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which was captured by Russian forces in March and has become a dangerous front line in the conflict.
Russia has “essentially militarized” the power station, which is still occupied by Ukrainians, stationing weapons and soldiers there, Kirby said.
“We continue to believe that a controlled shutdown of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactors would be the safest and least risky option in the short term,” Kirby said.