A long-awaited counter-offensive appears to have begun

The Economist

August 29, 2022

In August, 2014, Ukraine’s army suffered one of the greatest tragedies in its independent history. Ukrainian soldiers found themselves besieged by Russian forces in Ilovaisk, a town in eastern Donetsk province. As they tried to escape, at least 366 soldiers were killed in what many Ukrainians describe as a massacre. The historical resonance of that episode will not have been lost on the Ukrainian generals who unleashed an apparent counter-offensive against Russia in southern Kherson province on August 29th, eight years later to the day.

The initial news of an attack came in the early afternoon with reports that the first line of Russian defences north of Kherson city had been breached. One Ukrainian unit said it had pushed back Russian troops from near Oleksandrivka, less than 25km north-east of the city centre, after supposedly elite Russian paratroopers in the second echelon, to the rear, failed to support them and fled. A spokesman for Ukraine’s southern command confirmed that the army had begun “offensive actions in several directions in the south”. The deputy head of the neighbouring Odesa military district was more explicit. “The battle for Kherson city has begun,” he wrote.

A source in Ukrainian military intelligence described the breakthrough to The Economist in less excitable terms. It was, he said, merely the prelude to a larger operation. It had been made possible by an under-reported offensive in the east of the country on the border between Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which had taken six villages and successfully diverted Russian aviation and air-defence resources. On the night of August 28th, Ukraine turned its attention back to the south, striking key bridges, river crossings, ammunition dumps and Russian command points. That meant that when Ukrainian artillery and aircraft then attacked the frontlines, the Russian side was unable to call on support or co-ordination. “When we stormed them,” said the official, “they ran.”

The source said that breaking through the first line of Russian defences was good news. But a harder test lay ahead: penetrating the second line, which, he warned, was secured less by infantry than by tougher and more mobile mechanised units. If Ukraine succeeded in doing that, it would have every chance of moving past a third line of defence to reach the banks of the Dnieper river north-east of the city. That would spell real trouble for the 20,000-25,000 Russian troops thought to be deployed on the river’s west bank, leaving them few reliable means of retreat.

A former senior Ukrainian official said the immediate aim of the operation was not to attack Russian forces in Kherson city directly, but to weaken Russian positions around the city in the hope of forcing them to withdraw without a destructive urban battle. “If we just take Kherson,”

he said, “they will shell us and the city from the other side of the river.” The former official predicted that the offensive would continue without hurry or excessive risk-taking.

Ukrainian generals and officials had hinted for months that they were preparing a counter-offensive to take back Kherson, which became the first big city to fall to Russia in March, and its surroundings. Since late June, Ukraine has been using American-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to destroy or disable bridges over the Dnieper, disrupting supplies of ammunition and other heavy equipment to Russian forces. That has done much to undermine Russia’s ability to defend its positions. But military experts have been sceptical that Ukraine’s army had the manpower and equipment to launch a large-scale ground offensive. In the past week, some Ukrainian officials had played down the idea and suggested that their aim was steady attrition rather than swift attack.

It is unclear, for now, how far Ukraine can go with these attacks. Western officials describe them as “shaping” operations—military parlance for preliminary attacks intended to soften up enemy defences prior to an offensive. That could describe much of what Ukraine has been doing since late June, using HIMARS and other weapons to destroy ammunition dumps, command posts and air bases across southern Ukraine. What is notable about the latest attacks, though, is that they did not just involve strikes on rear areas, like depots and headquarters.

The Ukrainian military source confirmed that it was the first time that HIMARS missiles had been used in a tactical battlefield situation, striking infantry and other frontline positions—such as those around Oleksandrivka—as opposed to attacks on logistics and command hubs. That had the additional advantage of allowing rockets to be fired from a safer distance from Russian forces, he said. It also demonstrated that Ukraine’s high command was confident of receiving continued supplies of the rockets. On August 24th, Ukraine’s independence day, President Joe Biden promised that America would send an additional $2.98bn of military equipment, including fresh munitions.

Ukraine’s generals appear to believe this is the right moment to strike. A source in the Ukrainian military said it was important to reach the west bank of the Dnieper before Russia had a chance to get reinforcements over the river. Ukrainian commanders might also believe that a window of opportunity is closing. Many Russian units are severely under-strength, but the country’s 3rd Army Corps, a new formation, has been raising new volunteer battalions, some equipped with advanced platforms like BMP-3 armoured vehicles and T-90M tanks. These could allow Russia to pose a greater offensive threat in the coming weeks.

The next 24 hours will be crucial, with Ukraine’s frontline troops vulnerable as Russia tries to contain the advance. But Ukraine believes it is seizing the initiative. The first phase of this war ended with Russia’s ignominious retreat from Kyiv and northern Ukraine at the beginning of April. The second culminated with Russia’s capture of Severodonetsk in Luhansk province in late June. The frontlines have barely moved in the two months since. If indeed Ukraine has found a weak chink in Russia’s armour, it could mark the beginning of the war’s third chapter.