The fog of war is thick here but it would be a big deal if this bears out. Kherson, in southern Ukraine, is the one major city that the Russians have occupied and held. Putin’s army has been hoping to use it as a springboard first to the city of Mykolaiv and then, further west, to Odessa on the Black Sea. If they can pull that off and finally overrun the besieged city of Mariupol in the southeast, they’ll control virtually the entire southern coastline of Ukraine. In theory, Russia will be able to operate freely all the way from Odessa to Kherson to Mariupol to the disputed territories in the Donbas.

But they’ve hit a snag. They advanced on Mykolaiv but had to pull back after meeting dogged resistance and enduring brutally cold conditions without proper supplies. Lately Russia has considered trying to go around Mykolaiv in order to reach Odessa, which has been waiting weeks for the attack to begin.

Ukraine may have a surprise for them, though. Reports tonight allege that they’ve begun a counteroffensive in the south, where Russia’s seen its most success during the war, aimed at retaking occupied Kherson. It’s not just the suburbs of well-defended Kiev where Ukraine is attacking now, in other words. They’re moving to squash Russia’s beachhead, which the Kremlin presumably thought was safely out of the Ukrainians’ reach.

No one knows yet if a serious effort to retake Kherson is coming or if Ukraine is just trying to harass the occupiers. But one of the splashiest attacks of the war came a week ago in the city when Ukraine bombed a number of Russian helicopters stationed at the Kherson air base.

The Ukrainians also attacked the airfield a week earlier, which is what we’d expect them to do if they were planning an assault on the city. They’d want to weaken Russia’s air superiority before the counteroffensive began.

Yesterday the Telegraph reported that Ukraine has momentum in this region:

Analysts believe Russia’s aim of moving from Kherson to Mykolaiv and then to its ultimate goal in the south of capturing Odesa, the Black Sea port with huge historic and cultural significance is – for the moment at least – put on ice. Without aerial cover provided by Kherson airport, any Russian land advances would be highly vulnerable to attack and destruction.

Around Kherson, Ukrainian forces appear to have a spring in their step, according to reporters on the ground. CNN, the US broadcaster, was taken out on patrol to Posad-Pokrovske, a village between Kherson and Mykolaiv that had until last week been in Russian hands. Ukrainian troops had pushed them back, the television footage showing burnt out Russian tanks and armoured vehicles on the road out of town and in their place Ukrainian artillery in position to fire on the airport and other Russian positions. A burly, bearded Ukrainian marine – Daniyel Salem, a former Lebanese soldier married to a Ukrainian – turned to the camera and declared: “Now we have a little mission: to kill the m—– f——.” He then laughed. This did not feel like a Ukrainian military low on morale…

Vitaliy Kim, the charismatic head of the Mykolaiv regional military administration, has repeatedly said in the past week that Russian forces are moving away from his city. He said Russian troops had been pushed back towards Kherson where they were trying to dig in a new defensive line.

Ideally the Ukrainians would successfully liberate Kherson, of course. But if they can’t do that, halting the Russian offensive in the south is a huge victory in its own right. Note the last two points in the latest assessment from Britain’s defense ministry:

Putin’s dream of recapturing Odessa for Russia may be dying as I write this.

I wonder how the calculus in Moscow would change if the Ukrainians really did push the Russian army out of Kherson and retake the city, depriving the Kremlin of its biggest victory. Would they sue for peace at that point, hoping to cut their losses and see if Zelensky would concede them a “land bridge” from Crimea to the Donbas? Or would Putin double down and break out the unconventional weapons?

Even if Russia did sue for peace, it’s hard to imagine Zelensky accepting under those circumstances. If Ukraine manages to retake Kherson, which would a heavy blow to Russian morale, why wouldn’t they push east towards Melitopol and ultimately towards Mariupol, to try to break the siege? Why abandon trapped Ukrainians to Russian rule when Ukraine’s military has the momentum?

One day at a time, though. We’ll see how things look around Kherson tomorrow. Until then, I’ll leave you with this. This is what a city under Russian occupation looks like.

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