A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 22, 2022

The Reason Ukraine's Kherson Front May Be More Important Than Donbas

The southern, coastal areas of Ukraine, especially around Kherson, are more strategically important to the country's future than for economic and demographic reasons than is the industrial wasteland of Severodonetsk and environs. 

The south is the region from which Ukraine exports grain and it holds the key to Putin's dream of uniting occupied Crimea with the rest of Russia. People in the south are also less likely to be Russian speakers with favorable views of Russia, which is why the fiercest resistance to Russian occupation is rising there. In short, that region may hold the key to the future of Ukraine as an independent country. JL  

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

Over the past two months, attention on the Ukraine War has focused on Russia's eastern offensive. But because of its long-term economic implications for Ukraine, the war in the south may prove more decisive than the Donbas. The Ukrainians have launched counter-attacks in the south that have resulted in the liberation of multiple Ukrainian towns. Another element of their campaign to re-take territory in the south is the Ukrainian resistance. Russian challenges will be intensified by a long-term occupation where poorly led soldiers are expected to be administrators and chase insurgents. The Ukrainian resistance will attrit Russian morale, and demand the Russians deploy more forces

Over the past two months, attention on the Ukraine War has generally focussed on the Russian eastern offensive. The Russians, having learnt some of the lessons of their failed Kyiv and Kharkiv offensives, have concentrated much of their combat power in eastern Ukraine, where they have slowly, painfully and brutally seized most of the Luhansk region.

But there is another front in this war that is also important: the campaign in the south. Because of its long-term economic implications for the state of Ukraine, the war in the south may prove even more decisive than the military operations in the Donbas.

Over the past month, Russia has increased its missile and artillery attacks across the south. While these attacks have some military utility, the Russians have a more strategic goal in mind. As retired American general Jim Dubik has written, “the territory that Russia controls in the south, less Odessa, puts Putin in a position to slowly choke Ukraine’s economy while continuing to pummel Ukraine’s cities, civilians, industry, cultural sites and infrastructure.”

Putin may have emphasised operations in the Donbas in his May 9 “victory” speech. But this deliberate and systemic destruction of Ukraine’s capacity to generate revenue may now be the Russian theory of victory.

The Ukrainians well understand the threat this poses. With most of its ports occupied by the Russians, and exports curtailed, it is affecting the Ukrainian economy as well as resulting in an increase in prices of food around the world. Both are a strategic threat to Ukraine.

The Ukrainians have consequently launched counter-attacks in the south that have resulted in the liberation of multiple Ukrainian towns in the Kherson region. These attacks have also put the Russians in a dilemma about the allocation of their forces between south and east. However, the Russians have constructed several “defensive lines” in Kherson. These will be difficult to fight through, and it remains to be seen whether the Ukrainians have sufficient forces in reserve for another grinding and expensive fight there.

The Ukrainians, however, have another element of their campaign to re-take their territory in the south: the Ukrainian resistance movement. This is not a movement that has risen organically in the wake of the invasion. Back in May 2021, the Ukrainian parliament passed its “Bill #5557” which provided for the “foundations of national resistance”. Additionally, in the lead-up to the war, weapons caches appear to have been put in various locations. It is likely that small teams of military specialists are training resistance cells across the south.

The conduct of such a resistance movement, also known as partisan or guerrilla warfare, has precedents in most major conflicts. This dangerous, behind-the-lines, warfare aims to absorb the attention of an occupying army, to slowly bleed its capacity and its morale in preparation for conventional offensives that will liberate that territory. This is what the courageous members of the French resistance did during the Nazi occupation. It is what the Ukrainians are doing now.


While large proportions of the Ukrainian Army exhaust themselves in the east, and the Ukrainian high command trains new combat forces and transitions its equipment and logistics from Soviet to NATO models, this partisan warfare is buying time for the Ukrainian military. While much of this activity has been conducted around the city of Melitopol, other resistance operations have been conducted around Berdyansk, Kremenna, and Kherson.

Resistance activities have ranged from the posting of leaflets threatening Russian soldiers, the destruction of transport infrastructure and equipment, and the targeting of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators. There is some evidence that this is having an impact. The Russians have apparently been abducting and torturing public officials and others suspected of supporting partisans. At the same time, the Russians have imposed limitations on food and humanitarian aid entering the south to intimidate the locals. History shows this is unlikely to work in the long term.

The coming months are critical. There is evidence that both sides, due to high numbers of casualties and ammunition expenditure, are nearing exhaustion. Both the Russians and Ukrainians have lost a large percentage of their best troops and are now relying on territorial and reserve forces. An operational pause in the next month or two is a near certainty. This won’t stop fighting, but it will reduce it for a period while the Russians and Ukrainians retrain, re-equip and rethink.

While all this is occurring, the resistance movement in the south will fight on, and probably expand across a wider area of Russian-occupied territory. Russian challenges will only be intensified by a long-term occupation where their poorly led soldiers are expected to be administrators, chase insurgents and win the hearts and minds of patriotic Ukrainians. The Ukrainian resistance will slowly attrit Russian morale, and demand the Russians deploy more forces to control the lands they have seized in this invasion.

Like their French predecessors, many Ukrainian resistance fighters will be lost. But for the Ukrainians, the sacrifices of the courageous partisans of the south will help buy it the precious time it needs to build the force it needs to eventually clear the Russians from its territory.


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