How Ukraine's Counter-Offensive Could Turn War Against Russia

Ukraine's forces have set the stage for a major counter-offensive they hope will push Russian occupiers out of Kherson in the south, opening a path to Crimea.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian artillery teams, special forces, and partisans have laid the groundwork by destroying key Russian hubs, attacking vital railways and bridges.

Troops and supplies have been massed along the southern front line that runs between the cities of Mykolayiv and Kherson.

The long-awaited counter-offensive may have already begun, according to U.S.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his forces are moving "step by step" towards full liberation of Kherson.

Former defense minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, told Newsweek that Ukrainian fighters "need to move [Russian forces] out of there ASAP"; while Ukrainian security expert Alexander Khara suggests the attack "has an excellent chance of success."

Here's a closer look at Ukraine's major counter-offensive...

Ukrainian MLRS firing in Donbas against Russians
Ukrainian troops fire with surface-to-surface rockets MLRS towards Russian positions at a front line in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 7, 2022. Ukrainian forces have been using an influx of foreign-supplied MLRS systems to soften Russian defences in Kherson Oblast. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Counter-Offensive Preparation

Hanna Shelest, security studies program director at Ukrainian Prism foreign policy and security think-tank, told Newsweek that Kherson is a logical target for Ukraine's push.

"All territories are important," Shelest said from the southern port city of Odesa. "We are not prioritizing one way or another, it is just where we can do it right now."

The front line in the north, near Kharkiv, runs close to the Ukraine-Russia border, offering Russian forces good supply networks. In the east, Russia has poured troops and weapons into the pockmarked battlefields of the Donbas, winning limited victories.

But in the south, Russian forces have made no progress since the first weeks of the invasion. Supply lines from Crimea are stretched, their forces weakened by the demands of the Donbas, and occupying authorities are failing to suppress simmering insurgency.

Newly acquired long-range Western artillery systems—in particular the U.S.-made HIMARS and their high-precision munitions with ranges of some 50 miles—have allowed the Ukrainians to turn the screws, starving the occupiers of the ammunition, fuel, and other supplies needed to hold their positions.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said his forces have destroyed 50 Russian ammunition and fuel depots with HIMARS in recent weeks. The Ukrainians have also struck three bridges across the Inhulets River, which runs south of Kherson city.

On Tuesday night, Ukrainian forces hit the Antonivskiy bridge more than a dozen times, badly cratering the strategic structure and forcing its closure by occupying Russian authorities.

The damaged bridges, Shelest said before Tuesday's strikes, are a warning to the Russians. "It really depends on these bridges," she explained. "Ukrainians managed to not fully destroy the bridges, but to demonstrate that we can do it perfectly...It has a psychological effect."

Alexander Khara, a former security adviser to the Ukrainian government, told Newsweek the state of Russian morale in the south means a counter-offensive "has an excellent chance of success."

"The Russians suffer from poor morale, logistical troubles, and the horror of HIMARS," he said.

Partisan activity is also undermining Russian morale across the south. Top ranking collaborators have been killed and Russian troops have been regularly attacked.

"That is important," Shelest said of the strength of local resistance. "That's what makes it very different from what we had in Donbas in 2014."

Why Kherson Truly Matters

The city of Kherson—with a pre-invasion population of almost 300,000 people—will be the main target of the coming Ukrainian push. Just 15 miles from the front, Ukrainian success here would open the door to the rest of the region.

Broader victory in the south offers Ukraine multiple strategic gains.

Pushing Russian forces further east, beyond Kherson, will keep them even further from the key port city of Odesa and commercial ships operating there.

"Odesa is our gateway to the world," Ukrainian security expert Khara said. "The importance of Odesa is felt way beyond Ukraine. With its blockade by Russia, millions of people across the globe are starving."

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine's former defense minister,said it is too dangerous to leave Kherson in Russian hands.

"While Russia holds Kherson they will always be threatening Mykolaiv," Zagorodnyuk said. "And while that is happening, Odessa is in danger. The Russians always wanted and still want to take the whole Black Sea coast, so we need to move them out of there ASAP."

Kherson bridge damaged by HIMARS strike Ukraine
A picture taken on July 21, 2022 shows a car moving past a crater on Kherson's Antonovsky bridge across the Dnipro river caused by a Ukrainian rocket strike, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Recapturing the south would also mean regaining access to the region's well-developed agricultural and industrial industries; though both have likely been badly damaged.

While Russia controls the south, Moscow has a land bridge from the Crimean peninsula all the way through occupied Donbas into Russia. A Ukrainian seizure of the south would derail this so-called "Novorossiya strategy."

"Russia needs those territories to secure a land bridge to Crimea and an uninterrupted water supply to the peninsula," Khara said. The occupying forces are also seeking to redirect the electricity supply from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant along the Dnieper river.

"Even if they take just the city of Kherson it will be a major blow to Russians," said Zagorodnyuk. "If they take the whole region, it will cut Crimea from the rest of the troops."

The Endgame

Few in Ukraine believe any ceasefire or peace deal with Russia can be trusted.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear this week the Kremlin's war goals stretch far beyond the Donbas. Allowing Moscow to dictate the end of this round of fighting, many Ukrainians feel, will only set the stage for the next war.

"We have no illusions that it's not the last war between Russia and Ukraine," Khara said. "In the meantime, we will be restrained by the heavy Russian military presence there in our plans to put pressure on Russia and turn to 'politics by other means' if the diplomatic resolution of the Crimean issue has failed."

Defeating the Russians in the south will be yet another blow to Putin's imperial ambitions.

"Yet another success story is crucial for the morale of Ukrainians and our partners, who need to be encouraged in their belief that Ukraine will win," Khara said.

"We will be able to relocate some resources to the east. It might also completely discourage [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko from possible involvement in Russia's war effort beyond supporting it from the sidelines."

Ukraine's government believes it has a moral imperative to liberate those now living under Russian occupation.

But Moscow is trying to establish control over the occupied territories. This week, the top Russian official in Kherson said a regional referendum on joining the Russian Federation—a rigged vote to formalize Moscow's control—would be held regardless of "intimidation" from Kyiv and its forces.

Kherson residents getting Russian passports occupation Ukraine
Residents apply for Russian citizenship in Kherson on July 21, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. Russian authorities are trying to cement Moscow's control over the occupied south while Ukraine prepares a counter-attack supported by partisan and covert operations. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Occupying authorities in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are expected to hold such phony polls on or close to September 11. Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request comment.

Reznikov said last week: "I hope that the Ukrainians will be staying home on this day. But let's keep our fingers crossed. Who knows, probably the city will be liberated by this point."

Meanwhile, the occupiers are issuing Russian passports, installing Russian local government officials, disconnecting Ukrainian service providers, and disappearing anyone suspected of resistance.

"We have more and more evidence," Shelest said of ongoing Russian abuses behind the lines. Advancing Ukrainians in the south may find similar horrors as they did north of Kyiv in places like Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel.

"Besides military calculations, there's a human one," Khara said.

Any success will come at high cost. The Russians, while weakened, have been preparing for months.

"Russia still has lots of long-range firepower equipment," Zagorodnyuk said. "They've enforced Kherson with armored lines of defense. They brought two cement factories into town to make armored concrete blocks."

"Obviously the personnel loss is a major risk for Ukraine, and thus any steps must be very carefully planned," he said. "Russia is exhausting its capabilities but is still very dangerous."