After Kherson, Ukraine’s navy ponders new push south and east

A Ukrainian soldier in the entrance to a bunker at a military position in the Zaporizhzhia region on Nov. 30. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post).
A Ukrainian soldier within the entrance to a bunker at a navy place within the Zaporizhzhia area on Nov. 30. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Put up).

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ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — The trail to a Ukrainian victory — or a minimum of the obvious path — will in all probability minimize south, by the muddy and flat fields of the Zaporizhzhia area.

Following Russia’s retreat from town of Kherson — the one regional capital captured by Moscow because the begin of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion — Ukrainian forces have restricted choices for his or her subsequent large push to proceed recapturing occupied territory and, in the end, to expel the invaders.

A lot consideration is now shifting right here, to the southern entrance line lower than 100 miles north of the Azov Sea, the place Ukrainians are wanting to sever the “land bridge” connecting mainland Russia to Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014. Kyiv can also be intent on liberating cities resembling Melitopol and Enerhodar, the place the Zaporizhzhia nuclear energy plant is situated.

Russian forces, in flip, are digging into extra fortified defensive positions, clearly anticipating a combat.

“Everyone is talking about Zaporizhzhia. Everyone,” stated Konrad Muzyka, president of Rochan Consulting, a navy evaluation agency based mostly in Poland.


Ukrainian-reclaimed territory by counteroffensives

Ukrainian troopers have indicated that

they’re tasked with defending Freeway 15.

Nuclear energy plant

at Enerhodar

Russia controls this

highway that creates a

“land bridge” to Crimea.

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Accomplished in 2018, the

Crimean Bridge was the one hyperlink

Russia needed to Crimea. An explosion

broken the bridge on Oct. 8.

Management areas as of Dec. 2

Sources: Institute for the Examine of Struggle, AEI’s Vital Threats Venture

Ukrainian-reclaimed territory

by counteroffensives

Ukrainian troopers stated

they have been tasked with

defending Freeway 15.

Russia controls this

highway that creates a

“land bridge” to Crimea.

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Accomplished in 2018,

the Crimean Bridge

was the one hyperlink

Russia needed to Crimea.

An explosion broken

the bridge on Oct. 8.

Management areas as of Dec. 1

Sources: Institute for the Examine of Struggle, AEI’s Vital Threats Venture

Ukrainian-reclaimed territory

by counteroffensives

Ukrainian troopers stated

they have been tasked with

defending Freeway 15.

Russian management of

this highway creates

a “land bridge”

to Crimea.

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Accomplished in 2018,

the Crimean Bridge

was the one hyperlink

Russia needed to Crimea.

An explosion broken

the bridge on Oct. 8.

Management areas as of Dec. 1

Sources: Institute for the Examine of Struggle

However for all of the logical hypothesis, the roads and navy positions close to the entrance line present little proof of a buildup of troops, and there are not any indications that the Ukrainians wish to mount an offensive in Zaporizhzhia area anytime quickly, Muzyka and different analysts stated.

Victor Dadak, 35, a deputy battalion commander for Ukraine’s territorial protection, wouldn’t say if the nation’s forces would launch their subsequent large offensive right here. “It’s a military secret,” Dadak stated. “But I think in a few days the military secret will be revealed.”

Final summer time, rumors swirled for weeks of an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson area to the south. As a substitute, there was a shock, lightning push within the northeast Kharkiv area.

For now, Ukrainian troopers within the Zaporizhzhia area look like in a little bit of a ready mode — ready, in muddy situations, for the bottom to freeze.

It was the coldest day but for the Ukrainian troopers stationed right here, and the primary day Dadak observed the bottom start to harden, he stated. However the grime was nonetheless slick sufficient for navy automobiles to slip and get caught. Dadak stated he hoped that within the subsequent couple of weeks their automobiles would achieve extra traction.

A few mile from the entrance line, Dadak marched by a subject towards a gaggle of troopers taking cowl in the one place they may — a skinny row of leafless bushes that did little or no to dam the biting wind. The brilliant solar was deceiving; temperatures had dropped close to freezing. The troopers took turns warming up in a dugout with a wood-burning range and simply sufficient room for 2 small beds.

Their predominant focus was to carry a defensive place, simply behind the entrance line, and forestall the Russians from advancing north to the freeway that connects Zaporizhzhia to the Donetsk area.

However the long-term purpose, Dadak stated, was to push south to the Azov Sea. With the best momentum, Ukrainian forces might encircle the troops now on the east financial institution of Dnieper River after surrendering town of Kherson and cities on the west financial institution.

About 30,000 Russian troops are on the east financial institution of the river within the Kherson area, in accordance with tough intelligence estimates, Dadak stated.

However the quick challenges are fierce. The bottom is even muddier than within the Kherson area, Dadak stated. And, after abandoning Kherson metropolis, Russia redistributed its troops to the east, boosting its presence in Zaporizhzhia. Shelling has intensified ever since, Dadak and his troopers stated.

Russia’s power density has elevated, Muzyka stated, that means it has extra troops per sq. mile than it had firstly of the battle. “So if Ukrainians do attack, it will not be easy,” Muzyka stated.

Whereas the comparatively flat terrain and lack of rivers within the Zaporizhzhia area will make it simpler for Ukraine to push south right here, it is going to additionally give the troops fewer locations to cover.

“I think that Ukrainians are probably looking at a couple of areas where they can potentially conduct a counterattack,” Muzyka stated. “Zaporizhzhia is the most obvious one, which probably means it might not happen there.”

One of many Ukrainian navy’s long-term objectives seems to be an offensive that cuts south to occupied Melitopol, stated Michael Kofman, a Russian navy analyst on the Middle for a New American Safety, a Virginia-based analysis group.

The Russian navy has been getting ready for a Ukrainian offensive in Zaporizhzhia since summer time, Kofman stated. The Ukrainians, nonetheless, carried out offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, west of the Dnieper River.

“Whether they can do this sometime later in the winter or next spring remains very much a question,” Kofman stated.

Ukraine has sought to stabilize the road within the battered metropolis of Bakhmut, within the Donetsk area, and a second set of forces is attempting to push again the Russian navy within the Luhansk area.

The query is whether or not Ukrainian forces have the out there troops and artillery ammunition to drag off a southern offensive within the coming months, particularly after taking casualties preventing in Kherson.

The Ukrainian cities closest to the entrance line seem practically deserted for many of the day, with residents rising from their bunkers solely within the morning, when Russian shelling briefly pauses. Within the city of Huliaipole, well-known for being the birthplace of Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno, a missile strike on metropolis corridor a couple of month and a half in the past killed the city’s deputy mayor and considered one of his aides. One other current strike destroyed a big public library, leaving a mountain of rubble.

Steps away, baggage of sand surrounded a statue of Makhno, defending it from the onslaught of shelling.

Dadak has seen the Russians utilizing extra helicopters right here than they used to, he stated. A close-by unit just lately acquired rockets for the only objective of taking pictures down Russian helicopters.

Close by booms of mortars and artillery have grow to be extra frequent, stated a gaggle of 4 Ukrainian troopers based mostly a couple of mile behind the entrance line, whom The Put up agreed to determine solely by their first names due to safety dangers.

“This is our situation, day and night,” stated one soldier, Volodymyr, who deliberate to go to the entrance line on Thursday, his forty seventh birthday. The shelling has grow to be worse because the liberation of Kherson, he stated, smoking a cigarette in a darkish and cramped bunker.

With the temperatures dropping, Volodymyr stated he wasn’t anxious in regards to the winter. The navy had been getting ready the troopers with loads of heat gear, he stated. “The most important thing is to have a cold winter, not a muddy one,” he stated.

Possibly then, the troopers stated, they may see some motion.

“The momentum in Kherson gave us a boost in morale, and hope that we could also do something like that here,” stated one other soldier, Ihor, 36.

However Serhii, 26, stated he had no clue whether or not it could occur within the coming weeks.

“We could be here all winter,” Serhii stated.

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