For Ukraine, Retaking Kherson Could Create Battle Similar to Mariupol

As the Russian army continues to make methodical advances in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, the war in the south of the country has seen Ukrainian forces retake several villages over the past month. The progress has led to talk in Kyiv of a potential Ukrainian operation to push Russian troops out of the city of Kherson, and possibly beyond.

Such a push, however, could come at a high cost for a four-month conflict that has already exacted a devastating toll on Ukraine's population, repeating the horrors unleashed upon the once-bustling southern port city of Mariupol, now largely in ruins as a result of a prolonged Russian siege that ultimately led to the invading force's victory last month.

Kherson, located along the other side of the Russia-occupied Crimea, awaits another potentially destructive fight as Ukrainian troops prepare to launch an assault on one of their own cities.

Ukrainian presidential adviser and outspoken commentator Oleksei Arestovich said in an interview with internet blogger Mark Feigin on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had moved within 18 kilometers of the city.

Ukrainian Soldier Kherson Oblast
Ukrainian national guard soldiers stand watch near frontline positions on May 7, 2022, in Zelenodolsk, Ukraine. Ukrainian forces exchanged fire with Russian troops in Kherson Oblast, which fell to Russia shortly after the February 24 invasion, as the Russian military sought to create an overland corridor from Crimea to separatist-held areas in the east. Most of Kherson Oblast remains Russian-occupied. JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES

"It's in their sights, and it's clearly visible through their binoculars," Arestovich said. "We don't want to celebrate too early, because it's important to understand that in a war it can take half a year to advance 18 kilometers, but in the past three weeks our guys moved forward."

On Thursday, speaking about the war's southern front, Arestovich went further.

"My hypothesis is that, by the Russians' own calculation, they will be on the defensive by the end of August," he said.

For those Kherson region natives who have managed to escape, Arestovich's prognosis provided hope that they will soon be able to return to their homes. Katerina, a Ukrainian refugee who migrated from the town of Oleshki in June, spoke to Newsweek about life under the Russian occupation.

"It's total isolation and constant surveillance, comparable to a concentration camp. Russian patrols and checkpoints are everywhere. There is military hardware in residential districts, and friends tell me that the shooting has only intensified. We just want the Ukrainian Armed Forces to liberate the area as soon as possible," she said.

However, military experts from the United States and Russia remain skeptical that a Ukrainian operation to take back the city, let alone the entire region, could succeed. While the Ukrainian army continues to mount a fierce defense against Russian attacks in the east and has even made some territorial advances in the villages around Kharkiv and Kherson, it has not demonstrated the capability to dislodge occupying forces from defensive positions in urban areas.

"Urban warfare is extremely costly, both in terms of physical damage to buildings and infrastructure and in human losses," Margarita Konaev, Ph.D., deputy director of analysis at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told Newsweek.

Kherson, which fell under Russian occupation without a fight in the early days of the war, has thus far been spared such scenes. If a Ukrainian offensive to take back the city is launched, a long, bloody battle appears to be inevitable.

"Russian forces have spent the past several months strengthening their positions in and around the city," Konaev said. "They aren't going to withdraw unless they're absolutely forced to, and the amount of firepower it would take to do that could make the city almost unlivable."

A Ukrainian move to retake Kherson is also complicated by geography. While most of Kherson region, including Katerina's hometown of Oleshki, is on the east side of the Dnieper River, the city of Kherson is on the west side. While this reality might make it more difficult for Russian occupying forces to maintain supply lines in the event of a Ukrainian siege, it would require Ukraine to execute strikes deep into Russian-controlled territory.

"The Russian army has multiple routes for supplying Kherson," George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek. "In order to execute a siege, Ukraine would need to receive longer-range Western artillery and rocket systems capable of disrupting all of them, but at this point, Russia's rear area supply lines, supply depots, command logistics and support elements are things that Ukrainian indirect fire systems currently cannot touch."

Russian Supply Lines Kherson
George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War created a map showing Russia's supply lines in Kherson region. George Barros/Institute for the Study of War

"It's possible that HIMARS and similar Western systems could make a decisive difference in the coming months, but given that Russian artillery will be shooting back at them from positions in residential areas, it's likely a significant amount of urban infrastructure would be destroyed as part of any Ukrainian offensive," Barros said.

Kherson city's location on the west side of the Dnieper presents another challenge for Ukraine. Even in the event of a successful recapture of the regional capital, Ukrainian troops would need to cross the country's widest river if they are to continue pushing Russian forces back. In the meantime, those Russian troops on the east bank would be in a position to bombard any sections of the city that Ukraine's armed forces might succeed in taking.

"Even if we allow ourselves to consider the hypothetical of a successful Ukrainian offensive around Kherson, any Ukrainian gains would be short-lived," Russian military analyst Vladislav Shurygin told Newsweek.

"Russia is not going to just surrender a prize like Kherson," Shurygin said. "One way or another, Kherson is going to be under Russian control. The only question is, will the city remain functioning and intact, as it is right now, or will we see something similar to the battle for Mariupol?"

In addition to the physical destruction that Kherson would suffer in any battle for control of the city, a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south would leave Ukraine increasingly vulnerable in the east and north.

"There is a chess match aspect to the war," Barros said. "If Ukraine were to focus on taking back Kherson, they would have to deploy more forces to that front, potentially at the risk of reducing Ukrainian reserve forces that could support other important fronts in the east of the country."

Shurygin, for his part, does not see Ukraine prioritizing a southern offensive in such a way.

"It's unlikely that Russian intelligence has somehow missed the presence of a massive Ukrainian troop buildup in the south. From what we can observe, the Ukrainians simply don't have the necessary forces in place to execute a serious operation," he said.

In the end, despite presidential adviser Arestovich's optimism, the odds remain against Katerina from Oleshki being able to return home in the foreseeable future.

"The least costly way for Ukraine to eventually take back Kherson might be for them to succeed in winning the war in the east," Konaev said. "If Ukraine can put enough pressure on Russian forces in the Donbas that they are forced to redeploy manpower from the south, that would weaken the Russian's hold on Kherson and give the Ukrainian troops an opportunity to retake the city.

"That isn't likely to happen anytime soon, though," she added.