Ukraine in 'Condition-setting Phase of Counteroffensive' in Kherson

For months, Ukrainian officials have been signaling their intention to launch a counteroffensive aimed at liberating the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. As the war in Ukraine approaches the six-month mark, it finally appears that an operation aimed at pushing Russian forces back across the Dnieper River has begun.

"We're currently in the condition-setting phase of the counteroffensive," said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

"Recent Ukrainian attacks on Russian positions in and around Crimea, along with strikes on bridges that were being used to supply Russian forces in the city of Kherson," Barros told Newsweek, "should be seen as part of a coherent operation aimed at regaining control of the right [west] bank of the Dnieper River."

There are three major bridges across the Dnieper River connecting Russian-occupied territory on the east and west banks. One, the Antonovsky bridge into the city of Kherson, has been hit repeatedly by Ukrainian HIMARS rocket strikes and is reportedly unfit for heavy traffic. The second, the Antonovsky railroad bridge, has also been hit by Ukrainian attacks. The third, a roadway atop the hydroelectric dam near the town of Nova Kakhovka, has likewise come under Ukrainian fire, but the aim of disabling the bridge is complicated by the risk of causing potentially catastrophic damage to the underlying dam.

Kherson map
A map provided to Newsweek in June depicts the battle area around Kherson. The red-and-black lines show where the Antonovsky bridge crosses the Dnieper River into the city of Kherson, and where the hydroelectric dam at Nova Kakhovka offers an alternate river crossing further upstream. Provided by George Barros/Institute for Study of War

"The Ukrainians don't strike things randomly," Barros explained. "Those targeted strikes are part of an organized effort aimed at attriting Russian forces to the point where their positions become untenable."

From the Ukrainian perspective, compelling Russian troops in the city of Kherson to abandon their positions without a fight is preferable to launching a full scale offensive operation immediately.

"The Ukrainians aren't actually going to conduct a decisive ground maneuver at this time against a reinforced Russian position," Barros said. "Instead, I think what we will see is something closer to a protracted siege."

The tactics he outlined are well known to the Russians, as the German army used them with devastating effect in its invasion of Russia in World War II.

"After having degraded the Russian supply lines, Ukrainian maneuvers would likely try to encircle the city to eliminate the possibility of those Russian forces in the city leaving," Barros said. "The Ukrainians would then essentially try to starve out those forces while calling for them to surrender."

Military experts on the ground in Ukraine largely agree with Barros's assessment.

"Long story short, the counteroffensive operation is moving forward right now," Alex, a U.S. Army veteran currently located in Southern Ukraine, told Newsweek.

"Instead of pushing a whole bunch of people and equipment forward, the Ukrainian army is trying to destroy the Russian logistical network," he said. "The idea is to shape the ground in such a way as to make it unsustainable for Russian forces to remain on the right bank of the Dnieper River."

The ultimate success of this operation will have significant strategic implications for the Ukrainian war effort. The city of Kherson is the only major Ukrainian population center under Russian occupation on the right bank of the Dnieper River. While speculation remains as to how Russian forces were able to occupy the city without a fight in the early days of its full scale invasion back in late February, the fact remains that Russia's control over such a bridgehead is of critical importance to both sides in the war.

Mykolaiv Shelling Aftermath
Communal workers clean up debris outside a building destroyed as a result of Russian shelling in Mykolaiv on August 2, 2022. If Ukrainian forces fail to push occupying troops out of Kherson, then Russia could use the area as a staging ground for offensive operations against Mykolaiv in the near future. OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Despite Ukrainian optimism, if Russian military analysts' assessments of their side's priorities and capabilities are even remotely accurate, then the prospect of Kherson changing hands without a massive battle appears to be remote.

"It is not possible for Ukraine to convince Russian forces to simply abandon Kherson," Vladislav Shurygin, a military expert and member of the Izborsky Club think tank, told Newsweek. "At the moment, the city is fully supplied, and even if all of the bridges are somehow fully disabled, ferry crossings and pontoon bridges are sufficient to maintain our positions on the right bank of the river."

Russian forces have spent recent months fortifying these positions in and around the city of Kherson. According to Shurygin, the only way for Ukraine to push Russian troops out of the city is by waging the same sort of heavy artillery campaign that Russia has utilized in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region.

"In order to have any prospect of success, Ukraine would need a threefold superiority in manpower, as well as an advantage in artillery," he said. "And at the moment, Ukraine simply does not have that."

"If Ukraine's plan really is to try to starve Russian troops until they voluntarily abandon Kherson," Shurygin added, "then I am certain Ukraine's plan will fail."

Barros, for his part, sees the current supply line strikes simply as the opening stage of an operation that is likely to include significant levels of maneuver warfare before all is said and done.

"Ukrainian targeted strikes are an important element of the counteroffensive," he said, "but we are still only in the initial condition-setting phase."

"Timing as to the commencement of the latter phases is difficult to forecast," Barros said, "but if in six to eight weeks we still have not seen the start of the Ukrainian ground maneuver, I'll be scratching my head as to where it is."