The Fight To Free Kherson
By all appearances, Ukraine is fully committed to a large-scale counteroffensive aimed at liberating Kherson.
Over the past few days Kyiv has billed the fighting near Kherson as the start of a major push to liberate the city from Russian forces.
This follows weeks of deliberate, well-planned attacks on Russian military infrastructure behind the lines, even in the main support area for the troops occupying Kherson district — occupied Crimea.
Now, it remains possible that Ukraine is bluffing, using the media as part of a grand deception along with what are actually diversionary attacks.
Ideally, when launching a big military operation, you don’t want to do what your opponent expects, and Russia has reportedly been preparing for a frontal assault like this for many weeks.
However, the more Ukrainian leaders portray this as a big deal and the longer intense fighting goes on, the more likely it is they have to achieve a degree of success.
Setting aside the rah-rah nonsense spouted by self-serving, mostly partisan experts in most English-speaking media, Ukraine’s overall military situation remains extremely dire.
Russia is hurting badly too, thankfully, of that there can be little doubt — and this is less a function of sanctions, more Ukraine’s ferocious resistance.
Putin’s forces are simply not making rapid headway in their effort to break through Ukrainian lines in Donetsk. They do not appear to be anywhere close to collapse in any sector, but overall Russian progress has been slow enough throughout the summer that even my suspicious, cautious mind can’t doubt that Russian commanders are having severe difficulties assembling and maintaining assault formations.
A hazard of relying on contract enlisted troops led by officers without a strong professional sergeant corps to make things actually function.
There’s something about a college education that renders most graduates blind to some of the basic material realities of life — unless they’ve been in some kind of front line job first.
Many non-commissioned officers, like sergeants, do have quite a substantial formal education under their belt. But they usually acquired it later in life and for a purpose beyond education for its own sake.
And in war, where small units are ever the soul of the enterprise, professional soldiers are often more adaptable and capable than formally educated officers because the nature of education means curricula are usually a bit behind the times.
In any case, Russia’s weaknesses on the attack won’t necessarily hold on the defense.
You can hold a defensive line with light infantry backed by artillery and drones, but attacking requires either slow, deliberate pushes aided by overwhelming firepower or a faster punch powered by tanks and other heavy equipment that breaches the line and throws the defense into disarray.
Because Ukraine’s parters have failed to equip it with modern gear over the past six months, it is likely that Kyiv will have to rely on the former strategy more than is strictly ideal if you’re one of the people on the ground actually making the counterattack happen.
The ability to take out Russian command posts, supply depots, and bridges over the vast Dnieper river thanks to Himars rockets and (likely) special ops teams using drones, is what makes a dedicated Ukrainian effort to retake Kherson possible now.
And given the difficulties Ukraine is facing along the vast frontlines in the east, this fight is also likely essential for one reason above all others.
Basically, geography governs all warfare — even in the modern day.
And Rivers make extremely good defensive frontiers, which is why the loss of Kherson and Russia’s push on Mykolaiv in the first week of the war was devastating to Ukraine’s strategic position — even worse than losing Donbas and the Azov coast.
It has taken six months of determined fightback and the loss of thousands of lives to put Ukraine in a situation where it stands a real chance of inflicting another substantial defeat on the Russian invaders.
And better yet, it can secure Ukraine’s south indefinitely thanks to the natural barrier formed by the Dnieper river.
This will free up experienced forces to carry on fight elsewhere, even if they are not themselves able to cross the river and move to liberate Crimea right away.
And thanks to Russia pushing substantial forces across the river to hold Kherson, given the difficulty of withdrawing them when the bridges are down and barges are all that hold Russia’s supply lines to Kherson together, Ukraine has an opportunity to cut off thousands of troops.
Maybe even force them to surrender — now that would be a victory for Ukraine even Moscow couldn’t deny.
It may not be possible for Ukraine to mask the concentration of troops needed to launch an attack, given Russian satellite and drone coverage of the region.
And that might go a long way towards explaining why the attack so far seems so, well, simple, to put it bluntly.
Basically, Ukraine seems to be striking along a broad front at this point, not focusing its efforts on one axis. This could well change, of course, but so far it’s following a textbook script for fixing an enemy force in place and trying to break up their formations.
Hard information is difficult to come by in the early stages of this kind of fight, in large part because fighting forces can sometimes move and wage rolling battles across ten or twenty kilometers of landscape. Bystanders and even soldiers themselves aren’t always sure who is doing what and where, and feigned retreats followed by brutal counterattacks are common — as are friendly fire incidents.
Frankly, the commanders of the units doing the fighting often have no clue what is really going on. They receive a stream of reports that may be mistaken, duplicates, or irrelevant to the overall operation.
This is why one of the most dangerous innovations in all of modern warfare is a direct link between line soldiers and high-level leadership. History shows that is guaranteed to lead to inflexibility at the ground level, and may explain why Russia’s army is so inept — Putin is allegedly involved in planning operations down to the tactical level, like he’s playing Hearts of Iron or Command & Conquer, the fool.
What details have emerged so far indicate attacks at multiple points along the boundaries of Kherson district, with the one moving closest so far to Kherson city hitting the west end of the line, where Ukrainian attackers can use the coast to screen their right flank.
The fighting in much of Ukraine now appears to be characterized by long lines of trenches and hidden fighting positions anchored by the small villages that dot the landscape.
To avoid being spotted by drones forces stick to tree lines where they can take cover, but when Russian guns and rocket launchers are in range at sufficient density they can play a little game called recon by fire — which pretty much means blowing up every potential hiding spot.
Forcing Russian artillery units to disperse and rely on less efficient supply chains will have reduced the risk of this, allowing more Ukrainians to concentrate in a small area and make pushes led by tanks.
They want to break up any coherent line Russia tries to maintain by seizing the villages that serve as nests for soldiers — Ukraine is less likely to obliterate everything in sight for political and logistical reasons — the 200 or so artillery pieces and two dozen or so rocket launchers gifted to them can’t be everywhere and would draw powerful attacks even if they could.
Proving both the old adage that Russia always has reserves as well as the truism that war is constant adaptation, Russia has lately been repurposing S-300 surface to air missiles to act like less-accurate HIMARS rokets. This has led to a few truly weird instances of S-300 missiles used by Ukraine intercepting S-300s shot by Russia, and also means Ukraine can’t assume its people won’t get hit far behind the lines.
Which all basically means the battle for Kherson is destined to be a close-quarters slugfest that produces a lot of casualties on both sides.
Frankly, it’s the exact style of operation I’ve spent months hoping Ukraine wouldn’t have to launch thanks to getting enough modern gear to launch a bigger, even more devastating counteroffensive across the south.
Ultimately, Putin is fine with using Kherson like a modern Verdun, sacrificing ten thousand troops — very possibly lower quality ones, like poor guys conscripted in occupied Donbas and forced onto the front lines— to drain as much of Ukraine’s offensive power as possible before the fall.
Putin needs only to control Donbas and a land bridge to Crimea to claim victory this year, which is why Russian attacks in Donetsk have not weakened despite the danger in Kherson.
Unable to press on to Odesa anytime soon, holding Kherson is actually more of a liability for Russia than a benefit, particularly given the strong local resistance to Russian rule. The Dnieper makes an excellent defensive frontier, allowing any future Russian assaults on Ukraine to focus on the east without having to worry about a direct threat to Crimea.
It’s why I was hoping enough aid would reach Ukraine to enable an attack on the southeast bank of the Dnieper, cutting off the Russian forces now threatening to pull a Chernobyl 2.0 at Enerhodar on their way down the Dnieper valley.
This could potentially lead to the liberation of Melitopol, which effectively cuts the land link to Crimea, possibly even allowing attacks to begin on the Kerch strait bridge that connects Crimea to Russia.
A push here would force Russia’s over-stretched forces to pull back from Donbas, inflicting another public defeat on Putin, and could trap even more Russian forces on the wrong side of the Dniper, cut off from resupply.
But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the allies you have.
And Ukraine’s appear to want to see a bitter stalemate, not swift victory for Kyiv.
Fear of what happens if Putin is deposed or goes nuclear at even the smallest level continue to drive them.
So it goes in geopolitics.
Still, Ukraine’s defenders have a chance to liberate a city that was clearly aghast to see the Russians roll in.
That can only be a good thing.
And if this war is to drag on for years, as I and many others suspect, final victory will only be won a single blood-drenched step at a time, literally destroying one Russian army after another until Putin can’t send any more.
So much for the age of major military conflicts being over. Too bad the powers-that-be around the globe seem so bound and determined to ignore the lessons of the past, dragging us all into one last global war.
Regardless — may the gods ever be on your side, brave defenders of Ukraine.
You are and remain an inspiration to all the people of the world who seek freedom from domination.
This war marks the next and final stage of global decolonization. The little guys have the power now, and they’re gonna use it to survive.
As for Ukraine, here’s hoping you get some better weapons soon.
Like, come on, Germany, those snazzy Leopard 2 tanks you sell all across the world aren’t doing anything else useful right now.
It isn’t as if Russian troops are going to try and storm the Baltic States while they’re barely holding the line in Ukraine.
So get with the program, Europe. The future is now written, and either you unite and stand on your own, or the mutual fall of America and Russia will drag you down too.