Ukraine's Kherson Push Will Be 'Very Bloody,' U.S. Veteran Trainer Says

The nascent Ukrainian operation to push occupying Russian troops out of the south of the country will be costly for both sides, an American veteran training Ukrainian forces has told Newsweek.

Erik—who did not wish to share his full name for security reasons—is a 26-year veteran of U.S. special forces. Erik is now volunteering as a member of the Mozart Group, founded by former Marine Corps Colonel Andy Milburn, which has been training Ukrainian troops and engaging in humanitarian missions across the war torn nation.

Erik and his colleagues have been preparing Ukrainian forces now taking part in a counter-offensive towards the occupied city of Kherson and its eponymous surrounding region.

The operation—details of which are being closely guarded by the Ukrainian state—will require a change in mentality and resilience against high casualties, Erik said.

"Ukraine, in many ways, has been on the defensive," the American veteran told Newsweek from close to the southern front line on Friday. "When you're on defense the circumstances for victory are better on your side than if you're on offense."

"They're having to change the mentality," he said.

Ukraine soldiers pictured on Donbas front August
Ukrainian soldiers are pictured during an awards ceremony at a position along the front line in the eastern Donetsk region on August 15, 2022. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Each phase of fighting in Ukraine has been shaped by local conditions. Russia's early drive towards Kyiv became bogged down in the thick forests and wetlands to the north of the capital. In the east and south, Ukrainian and Russian troops have been fighting over flat, open steppes dotted with settlements.

Retaking Kherson and other occupied southern cities like Melitopol will require advancing Ukrainian troops to root the Russians out of urban areas.

"Urban combat is very bloody," Erik said. "There's a lot of casualties, it doesn't matter how well trained you are."

"The key is going to be learning how to operate in those areas," he continued. "There are so many considerations when you're doing urban operations that are different: communications, supply, logistics, casualties. Everything's different in urban areas; it's triply complicated."

"I've been in a lot of wars. And no matter how well prepared your people are and your troops are, nobody's ever prepared for the massive number of casualties. It's just the way it is. That's why Russia has made it a state secret when soldiers die."

Reports from the southern front indicate slow but significant success for Ukrainian troops. Several settlements have been confirmed liberated, while prominent pro-Moscow military bloggers lament the continued long-range strikes by Ukrainian artillery, aircraft, and special forces.

Russian sources have also claimed high casualties among Ukrainian units. Kyiv does not routinely report its own casualty figures, though last month armed forces chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said some 9,000 troops had been killed since February 24.

Kyiv says it is inflicting an increased rate of casualties on its Russian adversaries since the start of its southern push. To date, Ukraine claims almost 50,000 Russian troops killed. Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request comment.

Ukrainian officials have urged patience. On Monday, Andriy Yermak—the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky's office—posted a photo on Twitter showing troops raising a Ukrainian flag over a recently captured area. "Step by step," Yermak's post said.

The Kherson counter-offensive has been teased for months. Pro-Kyiv observers are anxious for concrete progress. "People are going to expect results quickly," Erik said. "It just doesn't happen that way."

Ukrainian tank in Donetsk oblast eastern front
Ukrainian soldiers are pictured driving a tank on a road in the Donetsk region on August 13, 2022. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Some military experts have suggested the counter-offensive aims not to smash through and drive deep behind Russian lines, but rather to accelerate attrition while strangling the supply lines sustaining occupying troops on the west bank of the Dnieper river, which bisects Kherson Oblast. In the latter scenario, success will be more gradual.

Regardless of the outcome around Kherson, the fighting looks set to continue into 2023. Peace talks—considered futile by many from the start—have broken down entirely. Leaders in Kyiv say there can be no peace without full Russian withdrawal, and have vowed to retake the heavily-militarized Crimea peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Fall and winter will be hard for both sides, as heavy rains and mud precede freezing end-of-year temperatures.

"I think it's going to become a slog," Erik said. "The lines are going to start to harden. You will not see much movement on either side just because logistically they can't do it."

"This whole thought that the war can be over by Christmas; there's no way," he said. "This is going to go on for quite a while, unfortunately for the Ukrainian people."

"I've been wrong before about the Russians. Supposedly their lines are pretty thin right now and they're hurting for people. Kherson might—just because of the Russian lack of manpower—be easier to take than we expect. But even if they easily take Kherson, they're still going to be stagnant through the winter at least."

In the meantime, the U.S. veteran said, Ukrainian forces need equipment to help them push their offensive at the battlefield level. Night vision goggles, secure communications equipment, mortars, drones, mine detectors, and even basic tools like shovels and bolt cutters can make the difference to small units at the front, he said.

"I have yet to find a soldier here that I need to push or to motivate," Erik said. "They don't really necessarily have a manpower problem, they just need more equipment."