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BORDERING KHERSON REGION, Ukraine – The road to Russian-occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine passes through a no-man’s land of charred wheat fields and cratered villages. The tails of rockets shoot out of the asphalt and the boom of incoming and outgoing artillery ricochets off the tidy abandoned houses.
Along a ragged front line, Ukrainian forces prepare for one of the most ambitious and important military actions of the war: to retake Kherson. The first city to fall to Russian forces, Kherson and the fertile lands around it are a key Russian beachhead, from which its army continually launches attacks across a large swath of Ukrainian territory. Regaining control could also help restore momentum to Ukraine and give its troops a much-needed morale boost after months of fierce fighting.
“We want to liberate our territory and put everything back under our control,” said Senior Lieutenant Sergei Savchenko, whose unit with the Ukrainian 28th Brigade is entrenched along the western border of the Kherson region. “We are ready. We have wanted this for a long time.”
Already, fighting on the region’s western and northern borders is intensifying, as Ukrainian forces – currently some 30 miles from the city at their closest point – lay the groundwork for a major offensive push. For the past month, Ukrainian artillery and rocket forces have been flexing Russian positions using a range of new Western-supplied weapons like the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS. .
The strikes, some captured on video, destroyed forward command centers and key ammunition depots, which erupt into flickering fireballs when struck, according to Ukrainian officials. They claim hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed and the attacks disrupted Russia’s logistical infrastructure. Supply warehouses and command posts have been pushed back from the front lines, they say, making it harder for Russia to keep its soldiers armed and fed. (Not all of their claims can be independently verified.)
“You can compare it to waves,” said a senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “Right now we are making small waves and creating the conditions to make bigger ones.”
Unlike the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where a massive Russian force continues to gobble up territory, in the Kherson region the Ukrainian military appears to have begun to turn the tide, albeit hesitantly. . After losing control of most of the region in the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian troops have now liberated 44 towns and villages along the border regions, or about 15% of the territory, according to the military governor of the Kherson region, Dmytro Butrii.
Senior Ukrainian officials have not given a specific timetable for retaking Kherson, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that it is a top priority.
“Our forces are entering the region step by step,” Zelensky said this week.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south has sparked debate among Western officials and some analysts over whether Ukraine was ready for such a big effort, or whether it is the best use of resources as advances Russians came mainly to the Donbass.
Still, Ukrainian officials and several Western intelligence officials said it was important for Ukraine to try to mount a counterattack. They say the Russian military is in a relatively weaker position, having spent arms and personnel on its Donbass offensive. Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, predicted that the Russians would be forced to take a break, offering an opening for Ukrainian forces.
Any effort to retake significant territory would nonetheless be a colossal undertaking. Russian forces have now occupied the Kherson area for nearly five months and have been largely unhindered in their efforts to harden military positions and prepare for an assault. They installed new rulers in the city itself as well as in larger towns and villages.
In preparation for a possible referendum on union with Russia, the military administration installed by the Kremlin in Kherson announced this month that it was creating a central electoral commission.
Retaking Kherson would require huge numbers of troops and far more offensive weapons systems than Ukraine currently has, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.
The Kherson region is largely rural, but the city of Kherson is a sprawling metropolis straddling the Dnipro River. Recapturing it from Russian forces could involve vicious urban combat with huge casualties in soldiers and property.
“We’re looking at Kherson like it’s the next Falluja,” said Michael Maldonado, a 34-year-old former US Marine from Kansas, who joined the 28th Brigade. “It’s going to be a lot of crazy fighting.”
The Ukrainian army will also have to take into account the large civilian population. The city lost around a third of its pre-war population of around 300,000, although a widespread assault involving bombing could put civilian lives at great risk, something Ukrainian officials appear to be aware of.
Marc Santora, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed report.