Zero Hour in Ukraine

Photo: Segey Bobok/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
August 30, 2022

On Monday afternoon, the Ukrainian military announced that it had launched its long-awaited counteroffensive. After six months of playing defense and losing territory in the east, the Ukrainians are now trying to push forward in the south, toward the strategically vital city of Kherson, which sits on the western bank of the Dnipro River, right where it spills into the Black Sea. 

If the offensive were to be successful—and that is still a big if—it would be a massive victory, both militarily and symbolically. It would also be a vital psychological salve for a country shattered by war. Geopolitically, it would prove to Ukraine’s Western backers that Kyiv’s forces can do more than repel an invader and hold them at bay indefinitely. It would show that Ukraine’s army can push them back and actually win, rather than simply maintaining a stalemate with all that expensive Western military equipment. 

To that end, Ukraine has done two very important things. The first is that it has moderated its goals for the counteroffensive. Instead of attacking a wide swath of territory and risking defeat (Volodymyr Zelensky has been talking recently about restoring Ukraine not to its borders last February, but rather at the end of 1991), it has decided to bite off what it can chew by focusing on Kherson. Second, Ukraine has been softening the ground ahead of this assault for a good two months. It has been regularly pounding Russian troops in the area while pooling its own ahead of the offensive. “Ukraine appears to have waited to gather forces and ammunition, and is launching this offensive within a relative window of opportunity once Russian forces lost momentum and stalled, and well before inclement weather approaches and Russian forces become entrenched in the area,” said Michael Kofman, a prominent military analyst and head of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses. 

Because Kherson is on the western bank of the Dnipro, Russian supplies have to cross the river to resupply its forces holding the city. Unfortunately for them, there are only four bridges (two road, two rail) to do so. The Ukrainian military, using American-provided HIMARS artillery, has been shelling these bridges since July. The Russians repair them as best they can, but the Ukrainians attack again and again, puncturing holes in the pavement and rendering them unusable. (The Russians have been trying to bypass the main Antonov bridge by building a barge bridge across the water under it, but Ukrainians have been hitting that, too.) The result has been increasingly fragile and tenuous Russian supply lines that will make it especially hard to keep Russian soldiers and materiel going into battle, day after day.

The political import of retaking Kherson would be hard to overstate. It was the first major city to fall to the Russian army at the start of the war. The Kremlin has been discussing turning the city and the surrounding region into the Kherson People’s Republic—much like the breakaway republics in the Donbas—and then annexing it to the Russian Federation, along with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Yet, for one reason or another, the Kremlin-organized referendum to usher in this glorious new future keeps getting postponed. 

More recently, officials from the Russian occupation government in Kherson have started turning up dead. It is unclear if it is the work of Ukrainian special forces or Ukrainian partisans fighting an anti-Russian insurgency behind enemy lines, but the growing list of assassinations seems designed to make it difficult for Russia to consolidate its political control over the region and to strike fear into anyone considering collaborating with Kremlin. Just this weekend, for example, Alexey Kovalev, a high-ranking agricultural functionary in the Russian-backed military government of Kherson, was found shot to death in his home. His girlfriend died later in the hospital: she had been stabbed in the throat. This, by the way, was the second attempt on Kovalev’s life. Earlier this summer, he had landed in the emergency room after his car exploded. The deputy head of Nova Kakhovka, a town in the Kherson region that is now under fire during the counteroffensive, wasn’t so lucky when his car went up in flames on August 6—which is also what happened to another bureaucrat in the occupation government of the Kherson region in June. And earlier this month, Vladimir Saldo, the head of the occupation authority of the Kherson region, was reportedly transported to the toxicological department of a Moscow hospital with what appeared to be symptoms of poisoning. It’s no wonder that, when the vice chair of the military-civilian government of the city, Kirill Stremousov, released a video address on Monday criticizing the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive, it turned out to have been recorded in Voronezh, a city in… southern Russia. 

As early as Monday night, just a few hours into the counteroffensive, CNN was reporting that Ukraine had retaken four villages in the Kherson region, while other accounts put the number at five. Kremlin-affiliated military bloggers were telegraphing where Ukrainian forces had broken through Russian lines, and, on Tuesday, the Ukrainian military was able to cut off electricity to Kherson and other towns in the region. The Russian military, tellingly, was denying that a counteroffensive was taking place at all while simultaneously claiming that it had “failed catastrophically.”

Still, most everyone except the Russian military agrees that it’s too early to celebrate or make predictions. “If sufficiently pressured, that foothold west of the Dnipro River could prove untenable for the Russians to hold,” Kofman told me. “I don’t believe it’s something that’s easily done but it’s something that’s within the realm of possibility [for the Ukrainian army]. But there’s not enough information and it’s still very early on.” One of my sources in the Pentagon waved me off of any optimism, and the British embassy, which sends out daily intelligence updates to reporters that try to spin any bit of information out of Ukraine into good news, warned that the Russian military, however exhausted, had learned its lessons from the failures of the winter. 

Even Ukraine’s leaders seemed jittery. Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelensky’s advisors, wrote that, despite “our wishes and dreams,” he was asking his fellow citizens to double and triple check information about the counteroffensive before sharing it on social media for fear of playing into the enemy’s hands. Nor is the Ukrainian military command sharing much news of the counteroffensive’s progress in its daily evening press briefings; much of what we know about the effort is coming from the press, social media, and local observers. 

There is an understandable feeling of trepidation around the offensive, rather than glee, both in the West and in Kyiv. Should it succeed, it would solidify Ukraine’s reputation as the military comeback kid; the David who, time and again, could go up against Goliath and, provided with enough American and European slingshots, win. Should the counteroffensive fail, it would make this winter’s triumph—and Russia’s failure—look like a fluke. It would burnish Russia’s dented military image and help Putin to solidify control over Kherson, perhaps accelerating the timeline for an annexation referendum. There is a lot riding on this counteroffensive, and if Russia can afford to lose it, Ukraine can’t.