Don’t get too excited by unconfirmed reports that Ukrainian forces are surrounding hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian troops in a town 60 miles northeast of the port of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
But the flimsy rumors circulating around the alleged pocket of Russian troops surrounded in Vysokopillya belie the real pressure the Russians are under along the southern front of Russia’s wider five-month war against Ukraine.
After spending the last of its pre-war combat power to capture the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, the Russian military halted major offensive operations .
The Kremlin is busy raising battalions of volunteers to repair the tens of thousands of soldiers the army has buried or sent to hospitals since late February. Ukrainian commanders took advantage of the Russian pause – and the simultaneous arrival of American-made rockets – to step up strikes on Russian radars, command posts and supply lines.
Rocket attacks help destabilize Russian defenses. And in the south around Kherson, it helped Ukrainian forces move towards the occupied port city with a prewar population of 300,000, extending an attempted counteroffensive that began in May.
Months ago, it was clear that the Kremlin’s intensive focus on Donbass risked creating vulnerabilities elsewhere. At the height of the fighting in Donbass in early July, three-quarters of the approximately 110 frontline battalions of the Russian army in Ukraine were in Donbass. Only a handful of battalions defended Russian gains in and around Kherson.
The Ukrainian army also concentrated its best forces in the Donbass, of course, but not at the expense of the southern front. In late May, Ukrainian troops began pushing south towards Kherson, then about 40 miles from the line of contact.
Two months later, the southern Kyiv counter-offensive extended within 24 km of the northernmost districts of Kherson. A parallel Ukrainian effort further east established accommodation south of the Inhulets River outside Davydiv Brid.
The Ukrainians did not move quickly. And there is no reason to believe that they recently surrounded up to 2,000 Russian troops in Vysokopillya.
But their acceleration is now hard to ignore. Increasingly well-armed with new howitzers and multiple rocket launcher systems supplied by the United States and other allies – and supported by the pilots and surviving aircraft of the small but stubborn Ukrainian Air Force – Kyiv troops in the south now run the risk of Russian armed forces south of the Dnieper.
This wide river, of which the Inhulets are a tributary, meanders south and west through southern Ukraine, buttressing the southern edge of Kherson before emptying into the Black Sea.
On Tuesday, a missile battery belonging to the Ukrainian Air Force – apparently an S-300 – reportedly shot down a Russian Air Force Su-35 fighter patrolling over Nova Kakhovka on the southern bank of the Dnieper, 50 miles east of Kherson and 35 miles south of the Inhulets.
The Ukrainian battery either managed a long-range shot at the limit of the S-300’s range. Or he traveled far enough south to put Nova Kakhovka within easy reach.
The Dnieper is a problem for Russian logisticians. The best and most efficient way to move troops and supplies in Kherson and areas north of Kherson is to cross a pair of bridges spanning the river near the city. “Control of the Dnieper crossings is likely to become a key factor in the outcome of the fighting in the region,” the UK Ministry of Defense said. declared.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces – artillery or rockets, most likely – hit the Antonovskiy Bridge, damaging but not bringing down the span.
“They haven’t destroyed them yet,” said Mike Martin, a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. written in reference to the Dnieper bridges. “They just put them in a crater, making them unsuitable for heavy logistics. But if I was a Russian soldier in Kherson, I’d be pretty scared right now.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Ukraine obviously wants Kherson and its access to the Black Sea back under its control. Russia is obviously aiming to keep its grip on the city.
But it is not clear that the exhausted Russian army still possesses the means to defend Kherson or can raise new battalions quickly enough to reinforce the city as the Ukrainian army slowly approaches.
Of course, the Ukrainian army too lost thousands of troops in the Donbass, so it is not clear that he is in the best position for a major southern offensive unless and until he can form new battalions as well.
But even in its dilapidated state, the Ukrainian army managed to maneuver towards Kherson. It is possible that the fight for the city itself is coming soon. “I will be watching Kherson very closely over the next 10 days,” Martin wrote.