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UKRAINE BRACES FOR BRUTAL FIGHT FOR OCCUPIED SOUTHERN REGIONS AS REFERENDUM LOOMS

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Aug. 3, 2022

The Wall Street Journal

KYSELIVKA, Ukraine—When Ukrainian troops deployed in Kyselivka on the Kherson front line in April, the village’s empty homes provided some protection from relentless Russian shelling.  “Now, there aren’t many places left to hide here anymore,” said a soldier who goes by his call sign Kulak, pointing to a landscape of craters and twisted trees. “Most houses have burned down from incendiary shells, and the church is gone, too. It is never quiet down here.”

No civilians live in the village anymore. A white goat wandered from one wrecked house to another, looking for food. Russian drones with motion detectors frequently hover over the spot from which Kulak observes Russian movements about a mile away and directs artillery strikes.

The unit’s mission, he said, is to hold firm. “The Russians shoot left and right, into the steppe, anywhere,” he said. “As for us, we have to economize the ammunition, so we only fire according to precise coordinates.”

The situation, for now at least, is similar across the Kherson front line that stretches for more than 100 miles. This strategic terrain represents Russia’s only foothold on the western bank of the Dnipro River and a potential avenue of advance on to the ports of Mykolaiv, Odessa and the rest of Ukraine’s remaining Black Sea shoreline. “Neither side has the forces or the equipment to begin a decisive offensive here, and so both are preparing for positional warfare, so far,” said Maj. Roman Kovalyov, the executive officer of a Ukrainian battalion in another part of the Kherson region. Much of the front line in Kherson runs along the Inhulets River that, while relatively shallow, has turned out to be a significant obstacle for major troop movements, he said. “The Russians are like locusts. We keep killing them and they just keep sending more, with no end,” said one of the battalion’s artillery commanders.

A region roughly the size of Belgium, Kherson is one place in Ukraine where Moscow’s initial assumptions of a lightning conquest proved correct. Russian forces overran most of the region in the first two days of the war in February, as many local security officials fled or conspired with the invaders.

Retaking Kherson, or at least the western bank of Dnipro that includes its capital, has become Ukraine’s critical priority in the next phase of the war. “Kherson has a huge strategic importance politically because it is the only regional capital taken by Russia, and militarily because if the Russians solidify their control there, they will certainly use it to try to move ahead and take our entire coast,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian minister of defense who advises the government.

Time is a factor. Moscow-appointed authorities are planning a mid-September referendum on annexing Kherson and other parts of occupied southern Ukraine to Russia, a move that would formalize a land bridge from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula that Russia absorbed in 2014. “The referendum represents a big threat, and so we need to ruin the plans of the occupiers,” said Serhiy Khlan, a member of the Kherson regional legislature who escaped to Kyiv-controlled areas and now serves in the Ukrainian military.

While the bulk of the fighting during the past three months occurred in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas areas, Kyiv has also conducted a series of local operations in Kherson, retaking a handful of villages. The arrival of U.S.-provided Himars missile systems in recent weeks has allowed Ukraine to blunt the Russian offensive in the Donbas.

Now, the focus of the war is increasingly shifting to the south. Russia has begun transferring some of its best units from Donbas to Kherson. Ukraine, meanwhile, is busy training new brigades that would bolster existing forces and provide the manpower for the planned offensive. The majority of soldiers in Ukraine’s front-line units have been

mobilized since the initial invasion, often with minimal training. “Everyone’s motivation is sky high, but their skills are usually zero,” said one front-line commander.

Ukraine’s General Staff is keeping a tight lid on its plans for Kherson, where the open terrain makes surprise crucial to the success of any offensive.  Kyiv’s strategy so far has focused on slowly choking off the Russian contingent on the western bank of the Dnipro.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian Himars strikes disabled the Antonivsky bridge and a nearby railway bridge linking the city of Kherson to the river’s eastern shore, leaving Russian forces with only one other reliable access route, via the dam of the Nova Kakhovka hydropower station 50 miles to the northeast. Ukrainian strikes have also damaged a key bridge between the dam and the city of Kherson, and struck dozens of Russian weapons and fuel warehouses and command centers across the region.

As a result of these hits, “the intensity of enemy fire has decreased somewhat,” said Lt. Col. Serhiy Shatalov, a Ukrainian battalion commander deployed on the Kherson front. “This gives us an opportunity to improve our positions and to seize more advantageous heights, not letting them dig in ahead of the rains and the bad weather of fall and winter.”

The question for Ukrainian leaders is whether the timing of Kyiv’s Kherson offensive should take into account the political calendar imposed by Russia. In the five months since capturing Kherson, Moscow has managed to recruit a small but relatively prominent cohort of local collaborators.

They include the former mayor of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, who now leads the region’s Russian-appointed administration that has plastered the city with billboards proclaiming “Kherson, with Russia Forever.” In speech after speech, Mr. Saldo says that Kherson should be used as a springboard for liberating what he calls the “historically Russian” cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa. Russia has already distributed thousands of passports in Kherson, introduced the Russian ruble, opened branches of Russian banks and set up its own mobile-phone network after taking down Ukrainian carriers.

For now, however, most people in Kherson refuse to work with the Russians—in part because of sporadic assassination attempts that target officials and policemen who have chosen to join the occupation authorities. In the city of Nova Kakhovka, the region’s second-largest, only one out of 14 school directors is cooperating with the new administration, which plans to reopen schools under the Russian rather than Ukrainian curriculum on Sept. 1, said Mayor Volodymyr Kovalenko.  “People are awaiting liberation so much,” said Mr. Kovalenko, who escaped to Kyiv-controlled territory in mid-July. “The absolute majority doesn’t even think of collaborating.”

Allowing Russia to carry out the September referendum could change that, a senior Ukrainian law-enforcement official warned. “Right now, most people in the occupied areas are sitting on the fence and waiting to see which side will win,” the official warned. “But if we don’t retake Kherson before it is annexed by Russia, the annexation will make them choose the Russian camp and we will lose these people forever.”

As much as half of the region’s prewar population of just over one million has since managed to find a way out to government-controlled areas or abroad, Ukrainian officials estimate. Some braved dirt roads in the steppes, some took rowboats up the Dnipro, while others cycled through forests around Russian checkpoints.

Ivan Petrov, from a Russian-controlled village in northern Kherson, said he made his way out through fields and across a river a month ago, after his family ran out of food—and as Russian soldiers began digging emplacements for tanks next to his home. “That’s the morning when we realized it’s time to go,” he said. He said he now plans to enroll in the Ukrainian military: “I can’t wait for the Russians to be chased out so we can return.”

Another escapee, Serhiy Bernadskyi, said he had worked for two months in the fields to afford the smugglers’ fee and, upon arriving in government-controlled territory, headed to a Ukrainian military recruitment office. He said he was turned down because his mother remains behind Russian lines, making him a potential security risk. “I’m heartbroken. I feel like a child who can finally see the toy that he wants and can’t get it,” Mr. Bernadskyi said.

In recent months, Russian intelligence services have detained hundreds of people they suspect of sympathizing with Ukraine in Kherson, including the city’s elected mayor Ihor Kolykhaev, taken into custody in late June.

Appearing almost every day on Russian TV as the face of the new regime in Kherson is the deputy head of the occupation administration, Kiril Stremousov, a former antivaccine blogger. At a gathering of local residents, almost all of them women of retirement age, Mr. Stremousov announced that “Ukraine’s authority is over” and promised free medical care and generous Russian welfare benefits, as well as “restoring normal families and providing normal sober guys to the ladies.” He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Russia” under his flak jacket and a pistol on his belt.

In Russian-occupied villages of Kherson closer to the front lines, no more than one-tenth of the prewar population has remained, said Lt. Col. Shatalov. “The only people left on the other side are those who love the Russian world and want to live under it,” he said, pointing out that some locals were directing Russian fire on his men when the battalion seized the village of Potiomkine in late June.

That small push forward involved heavy fighting and significant casualties. “It took us three days just for the village of Potiomkine. People must understand what kind of fantastic reserves must be accumulated for a rapid move into the depth of the enemy lines, crossing 100 kilometers in a few days,” Lt. Col. Shatalov said.

Out of the Kherson region’s 49 local communities, only one—Kochubeivka in the north—is fully controlled by Ukrainian forces. When the Russians occupied Kochubeivka in March, they executed a villager for wearing fatigues in his garden, looted residents’ homes and scrawled “All evil is from them” next to the word “U.S.A.” on a plaque noting American assistance to the municipality, said Mayor Liudmyla Kostiuk.

Unlike in villages closer to the front line, which remain largely abandoned because of constant Russian shelling, life has begun to return to Kochubeivka after Russian forces were pushed further away in recent weeks. The local store has reopened, with workers recently installing a new door.

Ms. Kostiuk said that she is praying every day for the liberation of the rest of Kherson. “We all want it to happen as soon as possible, but we’re also patient and realistic,” she said. “It is important that as many of our defenders as possible remain alive. And so we wait—and we don’t just wait, we help.”