Can the Ukrainians sustain two simultaneous counteroffensives against the vaunted Russian military? A few months ago, that may have seemed impossible. Just a couple of weeks ago, most observers considered either the Kharkiv or Kherson offensives a feint to distract from the other.
Now that Ukraine’s Kharkiv campaign has achieved so much success, however, it’s clear that their Kherson campaign was no feint. Their forces, apparently using US-supplied HIMARS artillery, took aim at a meeting of occupation leadership in the heart of the city, and apparently hit a bulls-eye. Even Russian state-run news outlet RIA Novosti reported on the success, via Newsweek:
A video published by Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti shows a huge plume of smoke rising from the building of the Kherson regional administration. Another video shows extensive damage to Kherson’s district court building.
Kherson has been under Russian control since the beginning of March. However, Ukraine is waging a counteroffensive in the region, and has had success in another counterattack in the Kharkiv area in the northeast of the country.
Ekaterina Gubareva, the deputy head of the Russian-installed administration in Kherson, said that at the time of the strike, a meeting was underway between the heads of the city and municipal districts.
She called the attack “a vile act of terrorism” and said the head of the labor department was injured, and her driver died.
Ukraine struck its occupied Kherson region at least five times on Friday using U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), causing a huge explosion at a building where officials of the Russian-installed administration were holding a meeting, authorities said.
The Kyiv Post also tweeted it out, for obvious reasons:
— KyivPost (@KyivPost) September 16, 2022
Just the fact that RIA Novosti covered this at all is remarkable. They want to paint it as “terrorism,” hoping to sell that to Russians that are without access to anything other than state media. Even so, their audience will shortly wonder how Ukraine got HIMARS artillery so close to Kherson in the first place, and wonder how “terrorists” could achieve that kind of tactical advantage for artillery.
If the Ukrainians are using HIMARS artillery on Kherson, this is no feint. It might not be as rapidly successful as their Kharkiv campaign, but their intentions can’t be simply discounted as a distraction either. Russia is trying to move their troops around to stanch the bleeding around the Donetsk and Luhansk areas, which the Kharkiv collapse now threatens for the first time in this war. If nothing else, a campaign on Kherson will pin down a number of troops on that critical link to Crimea, which would end up cut off if Kherson falls.
ISW doesn’t assess the Kherson campaign as a feint either. In fact, they see the operational pace picking up as Ukraine attempts to cut off Russia’s access to Kherson:
Ukrainian military officials are continuing their operational silence regarding the progress of the southern counteroffensive, noting that Ukrainian forces are continuing to improve their tactical positions and are engaged in positional battles. Ukrainian local sources stated that there is no official confirmation that Ukrainian forces have liberated Kyselivka northwest of Kherson City but noted receiving local reports that Russian forces are mining all of the roads in the settlement. Ukrainian officials did not report changes in Russian troop composition, but social media footage showed a Tuva Oblast flag in Beryslav, which likely indicates that Russian forces are continuing to reinforce northern Kherson Oblast with regionally formed volunteer units. Conventional Russian military units typically do not fly republic or federal subject flags.
Ukrainian military officials stated that Ukrainian forces are continuing their interdiction campaign, targeting Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) across the Inhulets and Dnipro Rivers. Ukrainian military officials noted that Russian forces are continuing to transfer equipment across the Dnipro River, however. Ukrainian forces reportedly struck areas of Russian manpower and equipment concentrations in the Kherson City suburbs and in Krynychanka (about 21km southeast of the Ukrainian bridgehead over the Inhulets River). The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command noted that Ukrainian forces damaged Russian ammunition depots in Sadove (about 15km southwest of Snihurivka) and Mykolaiv and Kherson raions, and struck the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) control center in Komyshany, northwest of Kherson City. Ukraine’s Department of Strategic Communications (StratCom) reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian military base in Nova Kakhovka, and local footage and reports corroborated StratCom’s information. Other social media reports noted Ukrainian strikes on Russian positions in Oleshky, on the left bank of the Dnipro River.
This was published before the strike on the leadership in Kharkiv, too. Clearly the Ukrainians are close enough to target command and control operations in the city itself. That alone may force the Russians to evacuate those functions to the outskirts, which wouldn’t necessarily liberate the city but get a large step closer to that.
One look at the map shows the disaster that would bring on Russian positions in Crimea, which the Russian navy can no longer relieve without risking even more terrible losses as Ukrainian HIMARS come into range of their ships. And of course, the liberation of Kherson would turn the Russians’ southwestern flank just as the liberation of Kharkiv Oblast threatens to turn their northeastern flank. The squeeze would wipe out what’s left of the effective Russian infantry.
And if Ukrainian morale to fight hadn’t already become unquenchable, what they’re discovering in newly liberated communities like Izyum will fortify them even more:
Most of the people buried in a mass grave discovered in the eastern Ukrainian city of Izium are civilians, Ukraine’s police chief said on Friday, based on a preliminary estimate.
Earlier, Ukrainian authorities said they had found a mass grave containing 440 bodies in Izium, a former Russian frontline stronghold, and said this was proof of war crimes carried out by the invaders.
Russia has not publicly commented on the matter. Its forces fled Izium during a major Ukrainian counter-offensive that retook most of the northeastern Kharkiv region in the past week.
Asked if the Izium site contained mainly civilians or soldiers, police chief Ihor Klymenko told a news conference: “On a preliminary estimate, civilians. Although we have information that there are soldiers there too, we haven’t recovered a single one yet.”
The longer this drags out, the worse it will get for the Russian troops in Ukraine — and for Russians in general.