More strategic Russian retreat marks long battle for Kherson

Ukrainian Major Volodymyr Voloshyn watches as military drone operator Arthur communicates with an artillery brigade directing their fire in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine on October 12.  5.
Ukrainian Major Volodymyr Voloshyn watches as military drone operator Arthur communicates with an artillery brigade directing their fire in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine on October 12. 5. (Heidi Levine/FTWP)

MIKOLEV REGION, Ukraine — Ignoring the occasional roar of artillery fire in the distance, the drone operator kept his eyes on the computer monitor in front of him, waiting for a puff of smoke. His thumb pushed the joystick to the left, then right, and moved to where his phone screen reported where the cannon should aim next.

About three miles from the southern Ukrainian front, U.S.-supplied M777 howitzers were attacking Russian troops who refused to budge.

Another soldier with the callsign “Dobriy” then told fellow Ukrainian special forces that their drone was not the only one in the sky. He had just been informed that a Russian Orlan reconnaissance drone was heading this way, and if they were spotted, the shelling would surely follow. The day before, the field behind this short trench line had been littered with rockets. “It’s especially important to me,” Dobri said with a smile.

His commander, Colonel. Roman Kostenko, looking worried now. “Should we leave?” he asked, referring to himself and the Washington Post reporter he brought with him. “Too late,” drone operator Arthur replied, still not taking his eyes off the screen in front of him.

The joy of a breakthrough in this part of the front line was tempered by anxiety about the hard fighting expected ahead, a day after Ukrainian troops recaptured more territory in the southern Kherson and Mykolaiv regions.

The army here in Kyiv pushed the Russians back dozens of miles in some places after months of pushing hard. But after the notable success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in northeastern Kharkiv, soldiers stationed near the southern front warned that tensions remained. They said Kherson was too important politically and militarily for the Russians to retreat in the same mess they did in Kharkov.

“This is not Kharkov,” Kostenko said. “There they left all their ammunition and vehicles and fled. Lord, we don’t even have a trophy. They just retreated from the fight, took everything to a new location, and are re-digging.”

Ukrainians have observed an orderly Russian withdrawal from some towns and villages in what may be preparations to tighten the front lines around the city of Kherson, the only regional capital that Moscow’s forces have occupied since the invasion began in February last year, as well as the neighboring capital. Town or Nova Kahovka. It is home to a hydroelectric power plant that also controls a vital water supply in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Seizing the plant and restoring the flow of water cut off by Ukraine was one of Russia’s top military targets in the early days of the invasion.

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Ukraine’s progress comes as Russian troops find themselves in increasingly dangerous positions in and around Kherson. The city is located on the only territory controlled by the Russian army west of the Dnieper River. The land is flat, making Russia especially difficult to defend.

The occupied land is connected to other Russian-controlled territories via two main crossings on the Dnieper River – the Antonovsky Bridge in Kherson is badly damaged, while the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam is to the east About 45 miles away, still ok.

Russian troops could be cut off at Kherson – if the Ukrainians managed to push close enough to the river to make it impassable, Kherson would be surrounded by Ukrainian troops on three sides and the river on the fourth.

“If the Ukrainian military can get artillery within the confines of major bridges and river crossings, Russia’s overall position could become untenable,” said Michael Coffman, a military analyst with Virginia-based research group CNA.

A prudent military strategy would require retreating to the river rather than risking a siege or siege at Kherson. But the Russians are likely to fight for control of Kherson, the capital of a region Putin claims to annex.

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The city and its environs would also serve as a useful bridgehead for the Russians on the west side of the river, should they manage to rebuild their fighting force and continue their offensive in an attempt to capture the port cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa.

“We think it is unlikely that the Russian leadership will approve a full withdrawal from Kherson for political reasons,” said a Western official who insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity to journalists with sensitive security information. “So this situation in the south could become increasingly chaotic and there could be a more desperate Russian army with its back to the river.”

“Crossing unrestricted territory is not an easy task,” the official added. “They will face challenges there.”

The Ukrainians have so far made the most progress in pushing the Russians back northeast of Kherson. The speed at which the Russian front line collapsed depends on whether the Russian army has established echelon defenses between the front line and the city.

Unlike Kharkov, where local militias and the Russian National Guard were largely responsible for a rapidly falling front, Russia deployed more experienced troops – paratroopers and marines – in and around Kherson. They are tougher adversaries, but even these forces are now disjointed by heavy casualties.

captain. Andriy Pidlisnyy, who said his Ukrainian army in the Mykolaiv region recently captured a Russian prisoner, explained Moscow’s manpower problem: In the prisoner’s three-person tank crew, all three were from different units of the Russian forces.

The prisoner, a paratrooper, was the driver. Commander, a mercenary of Wagner’s paramilitary forces. The gunmen were mobilized from the occupied Luhansk region controlled by Kremlin proxies.

“Even at the tank level, they have a hodgepodge of different units, then at the level of companies, battalions, and brigades, it’s obviously impossible to have normal coordination,” Pidelisny said.

Ukraine is now looking to take advantage of Russia’s critical transition period ahead of the arrival of reinforcements recently mobilized by Putin on the front lines. There was a flurry of activity on the road on Wednesday as Ukrainian troops moved pontoons, self-propelled howitzers and armored vehicles around the recently liberated settlement of Davydive Breed. Kostenko’s drone unit prepared homemade explosives in recovered soda cans and dropped them on the fields around Davydiv Brid—a creative demining tactic.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive, pressing on two fronts, is now moving so fast that even soldiers on the ground have trouble keeping up.

“Is Snihurivka already ours?” Kostenko asked his deputy, referring to a town in the Nikolayev region that has been a stronghold of the Russian army since the early days of the war.

“Almost,” the major. Volodymyr Voloshin answered.

The retake of Davydiv Brid and Snihurivka would allow the Ukrainians to gain access to the road deeper into the Kherson region and increase the pressure on the Russians from the northwest.

“Soon we will be in Crimea,” Volosin said blankly.

These were all from southern Ukraine, as were the rest of their 29-person unit. Kostenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, splits his time between Kyiv and international lobbying for Ukraine to receive more arms. On a recent visit to Washington, he asked members of Congress for more tanks and armored personnel carriers.

His hometown of Charifne in the Kherson region remains under occupation. On Wednesday, staring at a tablet with a map of the village, he pointed out the location of his home to a drone operator. “Whatever you do, don’t let anyone fire in there,” he joked.

Getting Russian soldiers out of his backyard is a personal priority. While he doesn’t think it’s easy, recent developments have convinced the whole of Ukraine that it’s possible.

“The success of the Kharkov counteroffensive really inspired the fighters here,” Kostenko said. “The instinct is to be cautious, but sometimes you have to push your foot in there to see that it’s not that scary and you can go further. When what happened in Kharkov showed that we could do it, the results also came Here. We start moving forward.”

Sonne reported from Washington. Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

Ukraine war: what you need to know

Newest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Friday to annex four occupied parts of Ukraine after a referendum held widely denounced as illegal. Follow us here for live updates.

response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation, targeting government officials and families, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said on Friday that Ukraine was applying for “accelerated accession” to NATO, in an apparent response to annexation.

In Russia: Putin announced a military mobilization on September 9. On the 21st up to 300,000 reservists were called up to dramatically reverse his setback in the Ukraine war. The announcement led to the exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men serving in the military, and reignited protests and other anti-war behavior.

Fight: Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive, forcing Russia to conduct a massive retreat in the northeastern region of Kharkiv in early September, as troops fled the cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned vast quantities of military equipment.

photo: Photographers for The Washington Post have been on the ground since the war began — some of their most influential work.

How you can help: Here’s how Americans can support the people of Ukraine, and people around the world have been giving.

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