Even as Moscow’s war machine creeps through eastern Ukraine, trying to achieve the Kremlin’s goal of securing full control of the country’s industrial heartland, Ukrainian forces are stepping up their attacks to reclaim territory. in the Russian-occupied south.
The Ukrainians used US-supplied rocket launchers to strike bridges and military infrastructure in the south, forcing Russia to divert its forces from Donbass to the east to counter the new threat.
With the war in Ukraine now in its sixth month, the coming weeks could prove decisive.
While the bulk of Russian and Ukrainian military resources are concentrated in the Donbass, the industrial region of mines and factories, both sides hope to make gains elsewhere.
Ukraine has pledged to expel the Russians from the territory they have seized since the start of the invasion, including the southern region of Kherson and part of the Zaporizhzhia region, while Moscow has pledged to keep occupied areas and take more land around the country.
Donbass includes the province of Luhansk, now fully controlled by Russia, and the province of Donetsk, about half of which is in the hands of Moscow.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov noted that by stepping up attacks in the south, Kyiv has forced Russia to expand its forces.
“The Russian military command was faced with a dilemma: try to support the offensive in the Donetsk region or strengthen the defenses in the south,” Zhdanov said. “It’s going to be difficult for them to perform both tasks simultaneously for a long time.”
He noted that rather than trying to mount a massive and all-out counteroffensive, the Ukrainians sought to undermine the Russian military in the south with a series of strikes on its ammunition and fuel depots and other sites. keys.
“It doesn’t have to be a frontal attack,” Zhdanov noted.
Moscow-backed local officials in eastern and southern Ukraine have talked of holding votes on joining Russia as early as September. These plans depend on Russia’s ability to take full control of these areas by then.
“The main objective of the Kremlin is to force Kyiv to sit down for talks, to secure the existing contact line and to organize referendums in the fall,” said Mykola Sunhurovsky, of the Razumkov Center, a group of reflection based in Kyiv.
He noted that Western weapons have boosted Ukraine’s capabilities, allowing it to hit targets far behind the front lines with a high degree of accuracy.
Ukraine received a dozen American-made HIMARS multiple rocket launchers and used them to strike Russian munitions depots, which are key to maintaining Moscow’s firepower advantage. The HIMARS systems have a range of 80 kilometers (50 miles), allowing the Ukrainians to strike the Russians out of range of most enemy artillery.
“It’s a serious advantage,” Sunhurovsky said. “The Ukrainians began carrying out precision strikes on Russian depots, command posts, railway stations and bridges, destroying supply chains and undermining Russian military capability.”
Ukrainian strikes on ammunition storage sites caught the Russian military off guard, forcing it to move materiel to scattered locations farther from combat zones, lengthening supply lines, reducing the Russian advantage in firepower and helping to slow down the Russian offensive in the east.
“They have to funnel everything into smaller, more dispersed stockpiles,” said Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who runs Sibylline, a strategic consulting firm. “These are all real irritants that are slowing down Russia. They took the hit to the rhythm of artillery fire, which was really essential before.
Crump said the Russian military underestimated the threat posed by HIMARS and left its ammunition depots exposed in known locations. “They thought their air defense would shoot down the missiles. And it really wasn’t,” he said.
In a series of attacks that helped boost the country’s morale, the Ukrainians repeatedly used HIMARS to strike a key bridge over the Dnieper in the Kherson region, cutting off traffic across it and raising trouble potential supplies for Russian forces in the region.
Zhdanov, the Ukrainian military analyst, described the bridge as the key supply link for Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnieper.
Russia can still use a second crossing over the Dnieper to get supplies and reinforcements to its troops in Kherson, which is just north of the Crimean peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014. But Ukraine’s strikes showed Russia’s vulnerability and weakened its grip on the region. .
“The Russians have the river behind them. It’s not a good place to defend,” Crump said. “They can’t get supplies easily. Morale is probably pretty low at this point on this side of the river.
He said Ukraine could eventually launch a massive counterattack involving large numbers of soldiers and weapons.
“This is an opportunity for Ukraine, I think, to deal a kind of bigger blow to the Russians and push them back,” Crump said. “I think there’s a greater chance of it being tried here than we’ve seen at any other time.”
Crump noted that the mere prospect of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south helped Kyiv by forcing the Russians to divert some of their forces from the main battlefield in the east.
“It slows down the Donbass offensive,” Crump said. “So even the threat of an offensive is actually working for Ukraine right now.”
Danica Kirka in London and Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report.