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Ukraine Strikes Back

With winter approaching, the West wavering, and supplies running low, the impending southern counteroffensive may decide the course of the war

Vladislav Davidzon
September 01, 2022
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Over the course of several months, the high command of the Ukrainian military had been vowing to begin a long-anticipated counteroffensive to recapture territories occupied by the Russians in the south of the country. Along with Zaporizhzhia, the Kharkiv region was quickly occupied in the first days following the Russian invasion in February. The Ukrainians have long wanted to push the Russians out of the strategic grain-growing region for a slew of strategic, economic, and symbolic reasons. On Monday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered another rousing nightly address to the nation at war. On this occasion, he doubled down on the Ukrainian wartime policy—and oath—to retake every centimeter of territory occupied by the Russians.

“The occupiers must know: We will chase them to the border,” Zelensky thundered before enumerating the territories that the Ukrainian army planned to recapture: “Ukraine is returning its own. And it will return the Kharkiv region, Luhansk region, Donetsk region, Zaporizhzhia region, Kherson region, Crimea, definitely our entire water area of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov—from Zmiinyi Island to the Kerch Strait. This will happen. This is ours. And just as our society understands it, I want the occupiers to understand it, too. There will be no place for them on Ukrainian land.”

Last month, I drove around the bases on the southern front with General Andrii Kovalchuk, the commanding general of the southern military district. Like every other Ukrainian military officer, he had refused to share the timetable that the Ukrainian army was considering. The Ukrainians had been cagey about the exact timing of the plans for their counterassault, as the general admitted they did not have the necessary armor or artillery to begin. “Anyone want to know what our plans are?” as Zelensky said. “You won’t hear specifics from any truly responsible person.”

Thus, Kyiv has spent the last few weeks softening up the Russian defense lines with repeated barrages of strikes from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) provided to them by the United States. In military jargon, these were preparatory “shaping operations.” The Ukrainian strategy has been to spend weeks methodically dismantling and degrading Russian logistics in the region by obliterating bridges, badly placed ammo depots, rail lines, and other critical infrastructure with precision strikes. The Russian Black Sea fleet’s air base in Crimea was struck; half of the planes parked on the landing strips there were incinerated within seconds. Not having the overwhelming forces needed to begin a frontal assault, the Ukrainian armed forces instead attempted to isolate the Russian garrison in the city of Kherson from reinforcements and resupply, as well as to encourage the Russians to flee across the river while leaving their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and Howitzers behind for absorption into Ukrainian armories.

In response, over the previous month, the Russians transferred multiple units out of the eastern Donbas theater to reinforce their exposed southern flank. My interlocutors and sources in the region informed me that the Russians were livid over the preparations for the counterassault; I heard multiple stories of Russian forces taking their rage out on ordinary Ukrainian pedestrians and motorists. Ukrainian drivers stuck in traffic behind columns of Russian tanks would be routinely pulled over, pulled out of their cars, and beaten severely. Ukrainian women were reported to have been sexually abused by the side of the roadway. Yet many of the Russian battle groups, which have been patched together from previously destroyed or damaged battalions, appear to be significantly undermanned and demoralized. With the exception of occasional minor movements—I watched Ukrainian troops liberate a tiny hamlet when I visited the Kherson frontline last month—the demarcation line between the two armies has remained essentially static for months, seeing mostly artillery battles and other types of attritional warfare.

Faced with the need to dislodge an entrenched and reinforced Russian occupation force equipped with superior tank, armor, and artillery in the south, and operating using lumbering brute-force Soviet command tactics, the Ukrainians have had to fight smarter. They have selected their targets carefully and husbanded their limited resources and ammunition. On Tuesday, John Hudson at The Washington Post reported that the Ukrainians had also forged a fleet of wooden decoy HIMARS in order to fool the Russians into wasting their precious stock of hugely expensive Kalibr cruise missiles on the dummy targets.

Over the last 48 hours, social media has been inundated with videos of the Ukrainian army on maneuvers, appearing to show elements of the Russian army being routed and in the midst of a chaotic retreat. It remains too soon to tell whether the assault is merely the latest in a series of short-term tactical maneuvers, or a strategic upheaval that will move the war into a different stage. But it seems that we are, in fact, watching combined Ukrainian infantry and armor battalions slice through several Russian lines of defense.

While it was always assumed that the offensive would commence before the start of the autumn, this particular moment may have been chosen because the Russian army was slightly distracted by its annual Vostok exercises with the Chinese army. “We might be in store for quite a strange scene where Russia conducts its annual strategic exercise in the Far East while Ukraine conducts an offensive,” observed the Russian defense policy expert Rob Lee. Sources in Washington suggested to me that the Ukrainians believe the Kherson assault is premature, but that they need to get ahead of a possible upcoming annexation referendum, the winter weather, and the escalating energy crisis in Europe, which threatens to fracture trans-Atlantic cohesion.

The Russian response to the counteroffensive has been to return fire and escalate indiscriminate bombing against Ukrainian civilian targets. The frontline, Ukrainian-held city of Mykolaiv—which continues to heroically hold off a Russian advance, and which would be relieved of pressure if Kharkiv were to be taken by Ukrainian troops—has seen the tempo of Russian bombing escalate. In Kharkiv, on the other side of the country and an hour’s drive from the Russian border, five Ukrainian citizens were reported to have been killed and another seven wounded earlier this week, when Russians fired 220 mm rockets into the middle of the town. The bombing of Kharkiv continues daily.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian partisan resistance movement active in the Kherson region has stepped up activities and assassination attempts against occupying forces and their local collaborators. Aleksey Kovalyov, an MP from Zelensky’s own parliamentary party who defected to the Russian occupation authorities in order to take up the post of deputy head of the Kherson occupation administration and lead operations to export Ukrainian grain, was reported to have been assassinated in his home, according to Russian investigators. Car bombing attempts against senior officers of the Russian military police in the region also appear to be increasing.

Six months after the start of the war, the Ukrainians are well aware that time is not on their side. Winter is coming. With a potential Russian embargo on gas deliveries to Europe threatening to cause a continental economic and energy crisis, the Ukrainians badly need a victory—for their own morale, and to convince the world to continue helping them take back their home.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.