Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank on a road in the Donetsk region on July 20, 2022, near the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Russia's top diplomat said Wednesday that Moscow's military aims in Ukraine were no longer focused "only" on the country's east, adding that supplies of Western weapons had changed the Kremlin's calculus. Photo by Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images.
KYIV, Ukraine — Reports of shelling against Russian occupation forces in Ukraine's southern Kherson region on Monday, Aug. 29, signaled the opening salvos of a much-anticipated Ukrainian offensive to drive back the front line of Moscow’s invasion force.
"Today, there were powerful artillery attacks on enemy positions ... throughout the territory of the occupied Kherson region," Serhiy Khlan, a deputy on the Kherson Regional Council, told Ukrainian media outlets Monday.
"This is the announcement of what we have been waiting for since spring: It is the beginning of the end of the occupation of the Kherson region," Khlan said.
While details are scattershot and unclear at this early hour, and any information is likely to be distorted by the fog of war, the Ukrainian military’s Operational Command South has confirmed that the Kherson offensive is underway and includes actions in multiple directions. Suggesting some early successes, government officials reported that Ukrainian forces had already breached the first line of Russian defenses by Monday afternoon.
"The Armed Forces of Ukraine have breached the occupiers' first line of defence near Kherson. They believe that Ukraine has a real chance to get back its occupied territories, especially considering the very successful use of Western weapons by the Ukrainian army," the Ukrainian government's Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security reported Monday.
Ukraine's military has also stressed the need to maintain operational security and not divulge too many details about the unfolding operation. Thus, there was a charged mood of anticipation across Ukraine on Monday as the country waited for updates on this pivotal moment in the six-month-old full-scale war — a potential turning point, many experts say, that could be the high-water mark of Russia's advance in that part of the country, should Ukrainian forces succeed.
"The most important thing we should know now is that any military operations requires silence. And the fact that any news from the front raise such an excitement is in fact very wrong under conditions of the hybrid war, during the informational war,” Natalia Humeniuk, head of the Joint Press Center for Ukraine’s southern command, told reporters Monday.
Ukrainian forces have used US-provided, M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, to target Russian ammunition depots, as well as to destroy bridges that Russian forces would need in order to retreat across the Dnipro River or receive reinforcements from occupied Crimea.
Ukraine hit more than 10 Russian ammunition dumps over the past week, Humeniuk said on Monday. One online Ukrainian military information source — Military Operational Group “Kakhova” — reported Monday that Ukrainian HIMARS strikes had effectively cut off Russian forces from Crimea-based reinforcements.
“Large and terrible HIMARS destroyed almost all major bridges,” the Kakhova group reported. “Only the pedestrian crossings are left. The Russian army turned out to be cut off from the supply of arms and personnel from the territory of Crimea. This is a brilliant chance for Ukraine to regain its territories.”
US defense officials have said that Russian forces in the region are undermanned, while multiple news agencies and think tanks have recently reported on low morale within Russian units.
This marks the first major offensive launched by Ukrainian forces after Russia’s full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24. Russia took control of the Kherson region in early March. Since then, area residents have repeatedly demonstrated bold acts of resistance against Russian occupation forces. Russian retaliatory crackdowns have been harsh, including arbitrary arrests and torture, multiple outlets have reported.
"So many people in Kherson oblast, who are living under the most appalling conditions, are waiting for this breakthrough to become a counteroffensive, and then, liberation from Russian occupiers. You can feel this profound hope and prayers for the Ukrainian army on social media," Ukrainian journalist Iryna Matviyishyn wrote Monday on Twitter.
Some six months after Russia launched its full-scale assault, combat has stalled along a relatively static front line that spans southern and eastern Ukraine.
Should Ukrainian forces successfully retake the city of Kherson or a share of its associated region, it would mark the most significant Ukrainian victory of the war since Russian forces abandoned their assault on the capital city of Kyiv and withdrew from northern Ukraine at the end of March. It would also mark a significant morale boost for Ukraine’s military as the summer months wane and the prospect of cold winter weather complicates the possibility of complex offensive maneuvers.
Home to about 300,000 people in peacetime, Kherson has been a key foothold for Russian forces in southern Ukraine, marking the limit of a Russian advance that likely intended to reach the port city of Odesa farther west.
If successful, the Ukrainian offensive's timing could work to outmaneuver Moscow's long-term plans for territorial conquest. Russian occupation officials had discussed the possibility of holding a referendum this fall on Kherson's accession to the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, some 50,000 Russian soldiers are set to participate in an annual military exercise in Russia's far east from Thursday through Sept. 7.
"We might be in store for quite a strange scene where Russia conducts its annual strategic exercise in the Far East while Ukraine conducts an offensive," Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Russia’s armed forces, wrote Monday on Twitter.
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