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Ukraine turning point? The offensive against Russia that may decide the war

Ukraine has waged a defensive campaign for more than 5 months. One offensive might change the course of the war.

Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:

We don’t know exactly when this offensive will begin, and the people who do know have no incentive to tell us. But it’s likely to be sooner rather than later, perhaps in a matter of weeks. “Once you disable a logistics node, or a bridge or a high-speed avenue of approach, you have to capitalize on that within a certain amount of time,” Jeffrey Edmonds, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), told Grid.

A campaign to recapture Kherson would mark a shift in a conflict that has so far been characterized primarily by Russian offensives and Ukrainian defense. It’s a high-stakes gamble for the Ukrainians: Retake Kherson, and they regain control of an economically vital region, prevent a key political win for the Russians, and tie down Russian forces that could otherwise make further gains in the east. Lose, and they may waste precious weaponry and even more precious lives for little territorial gain. It’s not clear they’ll have another chance.

Those next steps may well determine the outcome of this war.

Why Kherson matters

Anton Korynevych, an ambassador-at-large with Ukraine’s foreign ministry, told Grid that while Ukraine’s ultimate war aim remains a return to the borders of 1991 — which would mean Russian troops would be removed from Crimea and the Donbas — in the near term, Kherson is the priority. “It’s really important,” he said, “to regain control of the southern parts of Ukraine.”

The risks for Ukraine

That said, the Ukrainians would have advantages as well. Unlike in the east, where they are fighting close to the Russian borders, Ukraine’s supply and communications lines would be short in the south, while the Russian lines would be stretched. And the HIMARS strikes have, by all accounts, thrown Russian logistics and command structures into disarray.

On the other hand, the Ukrainians are unlikely to be willing to use the kind of scorched-earth tactics the Russians used to deadly effect in Mariupol and Severodonetsk on one of their own cities. “There’s always an advantage to fighting dirty,” said Edmonds. “The Russians are clearly not concerned about collateral damage, so it allows them to be more indiscriminate. It simplifies their operations and simplifies artillery strikes.”

The risk, as Doughtery sees it, is that Ukraine could find itself in the same kind of slow, grinding war of attrition in the south that Russia has faced in the east.

“If you’re wrong,” he said, “you’re going to lose a lot of Ukrainian people and your very limited supplies of things like armored vehicles and munitions, and you’re going to gain maybe 15 kilometers. Then it’s going to be October, and you’ll have just grinded your force to death.”

Why now?

There’s an argument to be made that the Ukrainians would be better off waiting several months for more weaponry to arrive from the west and more troops to be effectively combat-trained. But the country’s leaders may not feel they have that kind of time.

“In war, there’s oftentimes a divergence between military and political imperatives,” noted Dougherty. “Militarily, I would say don’t do this. But politically, I would say, you probably have to do this.”

And while much of the world has been willing to back Ukraine’s efforts to prevent Russia from taking more of its territory, giving Ukraine the long-term support it will need to actually retake territory will be a tougher sell. It may be easier if Ukraine can demonstrate now that it’s capable, not just of resisting but pushing back as well.

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