Why Kherson Is Key to Vladimir Putin's War as Counter-Offensive Begins

Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russia after Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now it has become the focus of a reported counteroffensive by Kyiv's forces to take it back.

Ukrainian claims of new attacks on Russian positions around the strategic southern port city at the mouth of the Dnieper River's exit into the Black Sea have spurred speculation that the long-awaited attempt to seize back the region and its capital was under way.

"Retaking the occupied territory of the Kherson province on the west bank of the Dnieper would be a major psychological and political win for Kyiv," said Peter Rutland, professor of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, at Wesleyan University, Connecticut

"The city of Kherson is the only provincial capital to have fallen into Russian hands. It would also make it much harder for the Russians to launch an offensive to take Odesa," he told Newsweek.

"However that would still leave a large swathe of Russian occupied territory on the east bank of the Dnieper, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station."

 The City of Kherson
The city of Kherson has reportedly been the scene of gun fire and explosions on August 30, 2022 amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern Ukrainian city. In this combination image, a view of the destroyed Fabrika shopping mall in the city of Kherson on July 20, 2022 and President Vladimir Putin (Inset) of Russia visit the Island of Forts Park on July 30, 2022. Getty

On Tuesday, Ukraine's presidential office reported that there had been "powerful explosions" and "tough battles" in the region during the day and night. The report said that Ukrainian forces had destroyed ammunition depots and all large bridges across the Dnieper River needed to bring supplies to Russian troops.

Russian news agency Tass said on Tuesday there had been five explosions in Kherson which were likely to have been caused by air defense systems at work.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military's Operation Command South also reported destroying a pontoon crossing the Dnieper as well as a dozen command posts in the Kherson region.

Newsweek has contacted the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries for comment.

Since late June, Ukraine has been using U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers to to target bridges over the Dnieper, disrupting supplies of ammunition and other heavy equipment to Russian forces.

Despite the claims that a counteroffensive had started, Ukrainian officials warned against excessive optimism with presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych describing on his Telegram social media account a "slow operation to grind the enemy."

"Many would like a large-scale offensive with news about the capture by our military of a settlement in an hour," he wrote.

However, the reports of fighting solidify a prediction made on June 28 by the former Swedish prime minister and diplomat Carl Bildt, who said the battle for control over the Kherson region is "by far the most important part of the war in Ukraine now."

"There is a clear Russian intention to cut Ukraine completely off from the Black Sea," he tweeted.

Strategic Significance

Straddling the Dnieper river, Kherson and the region of the same name are a gateway to Crimea which Moscow seized in 2014. Recapturing the region could give Kyiv's forces a launching pad for an offensive in Crimea, which has already been the scene of explosions not directly claimed by Kyiv.

Because it fell so early in the war and thus avoided the destruction faced by cities like Mariupol and Severodonetsk, Kherson has been the scene of entrenchment by the Russian occupiers who have set up political control there.

But following Russian failures to take Kyiv and the second city of Kharkiv, losing Kherson would wipe out one of Moscow's most tangible gains.

It is also agriculturally and economically significant with power plants and reservoirs that could potentially sustain Crimea and help Ukraine's efforts to restart grain shipments through the Black Sea.

"It possesses both symbolic and tactical importance," geopolitical strategist Alp Sevimlisoy told Newsweek.

He said that Ukraine taking back Kherson will "project a vision as to the re-integration of Crimea," as well as aid "troop deployment which will improve the country's prowess in the Black Sea."

Sevimlisoy added that retaking Kherson will allow Ukraine to boost its cooperation with Turkey on the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

That deal was partly brokered by Ankara last month and allowed ships carrying Ukrainian food products to leave Black Sea ports for the first time since the start of the war.

"Successfully retaking Kherson will enable the Turkish Navy to boost their existing cooperation with Ukraine," on that grain deal, Sevimlisoy said. It would also allow the Turkish Air Force to provide "wider security for Ukraine in Crimea and Kherson's port facilities."

Meanwhile, Salvatore Mercogliano, a maritime historian and associate professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina, said that under the current agreement, Ukraine can ship grain out of three ports—Odesa, Yuzhny and Chornomorsk.

"They are trying to add Mykolaiv. The issue with the latter is that ships would have to sail past a peninsula that is held by the Russians—and the key to that piece of land is Kherson," he told Newsweek.

"If the Ukrainians take Kherson, they could open up both ports—but that would have to be renegotiated when the current agreement expires."