As the Ukrainians advance, the Russians risk losing the precious city of Kherson

As the Ukrainians advance, the Russians risk losing the precious city of Kherson


Advancing Ukrainians have vowed to retake the southern city of Kherson from the Russians, but analysts say Moscow may be reluctant to give up one of its biggest trophies since February’s invasion.

On March 3, barely a week after the cross-border attack, Russian troops captured Kherson, the regional center of the southern Ukrainian province of the same name.

It was the first major city to fall to Moscow forces, giving them a bridgehead on the west bank of the Dnipro River from which Russian troops could launch attacks on other areas further west.

“It’s a strategic point. It’s a connection point between the Dnipro and the rest of the country,” said Olga Chiriac, a researcher at the Middle East Institute.

But today a Ukrainian counter-offensive is creeping closer to the city, threatening to take Moscow the only provincial capital it occupied in the invasion.

Pro-Russian authorities in the city have urged residents to evacuate. And on Friday they accused Kiev forces of killing four people when they shelled a bridge connecting both sides of the river, although a Ukrainian military spokeswoman denied they killed civilians.

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of planning to destroy a hydroelectric power station upstream from the city, which would amount to a “large-scale disaster”.

He said hundreds of thousands of people around the Dnipro were at risk of flash flooding.

And the disruption to water supplies could also affect the cooling systems of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest.

– Russians “at a dead end” –

Whether the Russians will hold on to Cherson or retreat east across the river is still unclear.

Russia currently controls a 140-kilometer strip along the west bank of the Dnipro River.

It has strengthened its presence with a large number of experienced soldiers who would have an advantage and could inflict terrible losses if the Ukrainians decided to attack the city.

But with a river within range of Ukrainian artillery separating the Russians from their retreat positions, they also risk being encircled.

In short, former Romanian intelligence officer Valentin Mateiu said Russia has troops that are competent, “but at a dead end.”

Their forces were “strategically at a disadvantage” after Ukrainian soldiers managed to gain a foothold across a Dnieper tributary to the north of the city, from which they could potentially cut off Russian-held territory.

The Ukrainians “systematically prepared the battlefield” earlier in the war, for example by destroying bridges and command centers, he said, and could probably do the same again.

He and Chiriac still thought the Russians would do their best to hold the city.

“The Russians will try to avoid encirclement and turn Kherson into a center of resistance,” Mateiu said.

– ‘Risk a new Mariupol’? –

Ukrainian analyst Mykhailo Samus said Moscow’s troops should have been evacuated “a long time ago”.

But he thought it unlikely that the Ukrainians would want to attack the Russian-held city, which is still home to tens of thousands of residents.

“The Ukrainians will not fight a battle for Kherson. They don’t seize and destroy cities like Russia, like Mariupol,” he said, referring to the city that was reduced to rubble by the Russians early in the war.

Retired US General Ben Hodges agreed that Ukrainians were likely to avoid a “huge fight in the city”.

Instead, “they’re keeping those Russian troops there so they can’t escape, and eventually…they’re going to be ready to bypass the Russians at Kherson,” he said.

Pierre Grasser, a researcher at Paris’s Sorbonne University, said Ukrainians must carefully consider their movements outside the city.

If they get closer, “they will enter the suburbs of Kherson, and that could be dangerous,” he said.

“An urban war always results in many deaths on the attacker’s side” and “it would risk a new Mariupol” in terms of damage.

Mateiu said Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhnyi faced a dilemma.

“The president wants that strategic victory,” especially since it would pave the way for retaking Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, he said.

That leaves the army chief with what the retired French general, Michel Yakovleff, described as a terrible choice – to “siege (the city) for as long as necessary, or annihilate it and reduce it to rubble”.

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