Mark Hertling’s logic is straightforward. The Ukrainians have used their new toy from the U.S. shrewdly over the past month, targeting ammo depots and logistical support to slow Russia’s roll. It’s working too, with one Ukrainian commander in the east telling WaPo that “the number of killed and injured has fallen dramatically compared with when his soldiers moved to this part of the front line three months ago.” Russian armaments are going up in smoke due to HIMARS strikes. They can’t keep up the pace of the shelling that they maintained in June.
It’s not just ammunition that’s being targeted, though. Command posts are also in the crosshairs, again for strategic reasons. “We know from the way that the Russians fight that they need someone to tell them what to do. When you are able to kill the people that tell them what to do, you’re able to stop those folks from moving forward. And we continue to see that,” one senior U.S. official recently told reporters.
If the battle were still being fought exclusively in the Donbas, all of that would be a temporary setback for Russia. They need to figure out a way to keep men and munitions out of range of HIMARS attacks; once they do that, they might try to resume their advance. The “dilemma” described by Hertling in the clip below has to do with the fact that the battle *isn’t* being fought solely in the Donbas anymore. The Ukrainians have begun to advance in the south, their long-awaited counteroffensive to try to liberate occupied Kherson province. The dilemma Hertling sees is a logistical dilemma: How does Russia defend Kherson when its supplies are now under artillery threat even in the eastern territory they’ve successfully conquered? Watch, then read on.
The wave of HIMARS strikes on Russian positions in the east isn’t just about destroying their munitions, it’s an attempt to force them to move their existing stockpiles deeper into Russian-controlled territory, making it harder to supply Kherson during the fight to come. HIMARS is also being used to cut arteries for those supplies, most notably the Antonovsky Bridge over the Dnieper that connects Russian Crimea to Kherson.
Ukraine is trying to destroy the Antonovsky Bridge in Kherson, and cut off Russian troops there. Once that happens, the Kremlin will have to make another “goodwill gesture” and retreat from the city.
Russia, unlike Ukraine, doesn’t dare to bomb any bridges over the Dniepr River. pic.twitter.com/6GjQQYkUGI
— Никола Миковић / Nikola Mikovic (@nikola_mikovic) July 24, 2022
““The Russians have nothing equivalent because these systems were developed by the Americans as a sort of sniper artillery for use in difficult environments like Fallujah [in Iraq], where you had to hit the target exactly because it was surrounded by civilians,” one expert told Al Jazeera of HIMARS. HIMARS strikes are so precise that they can punch holes in the bridge — hopefully — that will render it unusable by heavy Russian weaponry without destroying it completely. One Ukrainian journalist described them as a message to the Russians from Ukrainian forces: “We can cut you off supplies and you’ll be done.”
Kherson could eventually end up as Mariupol in reverse, with the occupiers trapped inside lacking any way to get food or ammunition. In fact, according to Newsweek, “After the HIMARS struck three bridges outside the city, Russia is struggling to get extra troops back in time to defend the strategically important region in the south.”
Let’s hope so, because the Kherson counteroffensive isn’t just an inflection point for Russia. If the Ukrainians push forward and stall out, Zelensky’s western patrons will conclude that there’s no prospect for total Ukrainian victory in this war and therefore it’s time to talk settlement.
Any effort to retake significant territory would nevertheless be a huge undertaking. Russian forces have now occupied the Kherson region for nearly five months and have been largely unmolested in their efforts to harden military positions and prepare for an assault. They have installed new leaders in the city itself as well as in major towns and villages.
A counterattack would require a huge number of troops and many more offensive weapons systems than Ukraine has available at the moment, some Western and Ukrainian officials say. Ukraine is expending about 6,000 to 8,000 shells a day overall. If it were to begin an active attack on Kherson it would need three to four times as many.
Aleksei Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, has spoken of the need to raise a million-man army to take back the lands Ukraine has lost in the war. The Kherson region is largely rural, but the city of Kherson is a sprawling metropolis straddling the Dnipro River. Taking it back could involve vicious urban fighting with enormous losses in soldiers and property.
A spokesman for the local Ukrainian governor predicted that the province will be in Ukrainian hands by September. Uh, we’ll see. Meanwhile, Russia is looking to cement its gains in Kherson by holding its own little sham Anschluss referendum there sometime that same month. From Putin’s perspective, that’s a win/win. If Russian troops repel the Ukrainian counteroffensive and Kiev sues for peace, he’ll cite the annexation of the province and demand that Ukraine forfeit it to Russia as part of a deal. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds, Putin can use the annexation as grounds for future offensives against Ukraine. (“We must liberate our land in Kherson!”)
Although whether he’ll have the manpower to do that anytime soon, before he croaks, is in question. Much has been written about the coming morale problem in the west, as Europe begins to freeze this winter after going cold turkey on Russian natural gas. But the Russians will soon face a morale problem too, notes Tom Nichols:
What the Russians are going to have to do is keep cycling troops in and out of these tough forward positions in bitterly cold weather. And I think one thing that we haven’t talked about enough—I mean, we in the West haven’t talked about enough—is that a lot of these Russian troops that are being sent there [are] not Russians. They’re not ethnically Russians. They’re going out, and they’re getting kids from the boondocks and some of the non-Russian areas of the Russian Federation and sending them off to the Ukrainian border. And that’s hard enough to do under the best conditions—but when a central European winter sets in, that’s going to be a lot more difficult.
The next six months will determine whether Ukraine stands any chance of victory or not.
In lieu of an exit question, read Hertling’s Twitter thread about logistics on the Ukrainian side. Zelensky asks often for more HIMARS systems, but supplying the system itself isn’t a terrible problem. We allegedly have 500 or so across the globe and have shared just 16 so far with the Ukrainians. The problem is supplying missiles for the system. The 16 in the field might be expected to fire around 6,000 per month combined per Hertling’s calculations. The manufacturer makes around 9,000 per year. Gulp.