A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 13, 2022

Ukraine's Kherson Counteroffensive Is Quietly Gaining Ground

The Ukrainian high command has been circumspect about focusing attention on its Kherson counteroffensive because it does not want to raise false hopes - or give the curiously inattentive Russian leadership any reason to shift its focus from Donbas. 

The southern Ukraine around Kherson is far more important economically and strategically than the urban wastelands which the Russians have been pounding with their artillery. That the Ukrainian advance has so far gained ground is significant as it suggests its troops training and combined arms maneuvering is paying off against well armed and dug in professional Russian soldiers. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

On Monday, Ukrainian forces liberated the Kyselivka. Kyselivka wasn’t just one of Russia’s two hard points along the M14 road running into the heart of Kherson, it may be the first time in this part of the battlefield that Ukrainian troops dislodged Russian forces from a well-fortified position. They’re now about 5 kilometers closer to the city of Kherson. And though “15 kilometers from Kherson!” may seem like you’ve heard before (because you have), the capture of Kyselivka, the destruction of the Russian base at Chornobaivka, the massive blast at Nova Kakhovka, and the pressure of Ukrainian forces up and down the Kherson front suggests that Ukraine is not backing off.

Yesterday’s update included a map of the Kherson area, so it may seem too early to be hitting it again. We’re hitting it again. That’s because on Monday, Ukrainian forces reportedly liberated the town of Kyselivka.

In the last census, Kyselivka had a population of just over 2,500. Compared to the Russian capture of a town like Severodonetsk (pop. 101,000 before the invasion), this may not seem like that big a deal. And it’s not—this isn’t the capture of a major city. However, Kyselivka is important because it was one of the points where Russian forces had dug in, fortified the area, and established a line that Ukrainian forces had been unable to budge in weeks of fighting. Now that line is broken.

Rather than being comparable to the capture of Severodonetsk, this is more like when Russia breached Ukrainian defenses at Toshkivka. It wasn’t the capture of a major city, but it set up that capture. Kyselivka wasn’t just one of Russia’s two hard points along the M14 road running into the heart of Kherson, it may be the first time in this part of the battlefield that Ukrainian troops have successfully dislodged Russian forces from a well-fortified position.

What happens in the immediate fall of Kyselivka isn’t clear. It’s extremely unlikely to lead to a rapid capture of Kherson. But it does bring Ukrainian troops and weapons closer to the city, as well as making it more difficult for Russia to hold positions north and south of Kyselivka. Ukrainian forces have ranged south and west of Kyselivka on Tuesday, though it’s not clear that any additional towns or villages have been secured.

Back in the second month of the war, we looked at the small town of Popasna in the east and its place in Ukraine’s defensive line. The fall of Popasna set up a cascade of events and is still playing into the progress of fighting in the Donbas. Kyselivka isn’t Popasna. Russia had only been fortifying the location for months, not years, and the town itself is an order of magnitude smaller. But Ukraine’s punching through the Russian lines at this point could represent a genuine change in the course of events for the Kherson region.

Ukrainian troops liberate Kyselivka on the highway west of Kherson.

When it comes to the remainder of the region, Kyselivka may not be the only place where Russian lines are getting bent back. At the far northern end of the line, the positions of Vysokopillya seem more and more tenuous. In fact, some posts are claiming that Ukraine is largely in control of the area, with some of that wince-worthy euphemistic “mopping up” still underway. One Russian Telegram post described actions there as Russia attempting to “take back” the town from Ukrainian control. Both of these descriptions may be optimistic, and there is no doubt that fighting is still going on in the area, but Ukraine’s position seems to be improving. 

There are a few other points worth noting before we leave Kherson:

  • Way up on the northeast corner of the map, Zolota Balka is listed as in dispute. For weeks I had it as liberated by Ukraine, then somewhere when I wasn’t paying close attention, it seems to have slipped back into Russian occupation. Now there does seem to be active fighting for control of the town. 
  • When it comes to that bridgehead south of Davydiv Brid, in spite of many sites wiping it from their maps, multiple reports from Russian sources that it was completely destroyed, and more recent reports that Russia was “pushing those troops back across the Inhulets,” the only thing I can say is it’s not gone. It’s not even clear that Ukraine has lost control of the villages it secured after making the crossing.
  • Southwest of Snihurivka there’s a new bulge of yellow on this map, and several villages that had been marked as under Ukrainian control are now marked as in dispute. This doesn’t represent a fresh offensive by Russia. It’s another in the long line of reports that I missed from days/weeks ago. Russian troops are reportedly operating in this area with only limited Ukrainian presence, but they don’t seem to be attempting to occupy/fortify positions in this area.
  • Nova Kakhovka, which stands on the eastern side of one of the two critical bridges across the mighty Dnipro River, was the site of that absolutely spectacular explosion on Monday in which a HIMARS system took out a Russian ammunition depot with semi-apocalyptic results that seem to have made Russians very sad. At midday on Tuesday, there are still reportedly explosions going off at the site of this strike.
  • Ukrainian artillery has been absolutely hammering the area around Kherson airport for days, and reportedly took out the Russian base at Chornobaivka on Monday. This strike reportedly took down a series of warehouses, destroyed equipment on the ground, and killed over a dozen senior officers. Chornobaivka is that second “hard point” on the road to Kherson. It seems as if it may be a lot softer than it was a week ago.
  • Pundits who casually suggested that there were no HIMARS operating in the Kherson region should drop and give me 20. Now excuse me, I’ll be back in about … an hour. 

As Ukraine solidifies their hold on the area, they’re now about 5 kilometers closer to the city of Kherson than they were on Sunday. And though “15 kilometers from Kherson!” may seem like something you’ve heard here before (because you have), the capture of Kyselivka, the destruction of the Russian base at Chornobaivka, the massive blast at Nova Kakhovka, and the pressure of Ukrainian forces all up and down the Kherson front suggests that this time, Ukraine is not backing off.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a statement over the weekend that liberating southern Ukraine was a priority. Kherson would be a great place to start.

Moving back to the southeast, in the area around Donetsk, a series of HIMARS strikes that were recorded on Monday show something of a similar pattern to what’s happening in Kherson oblast. These strikes also seem to be aimed at the same mix of resources that were targeted to the west: warehouses, ammunition depots, fuel depots, and command centers. In addition to HIMARS, Ukraine seems to have employed artillery in the area, but the HIMARS strikes were some 60 kilometers into territory occupied by Russia.

One of these strikes at Shakhtarsk also reportedly took out a number of senior officers in the area.

If the last few days have been marked by notable Ukrainian victories and strikes against military targets, that doesn’t mean that Russia hasn’t scored their own points … in what seems to be the primary way that Russia’s army now works. 

At Chasiv Yar alone, a Monday strike from a Russian missile left at least 30 dead (a revision from the tweet below as rescue workers are still attempting to find survivors beneath the rubble). 

This attack was only one of many in which Russian missiles blasted into apartment buildings and business blocks across Ukraine. Russia forces may be taking some heavy blows in the field, but hey, they sure can slaughter innocent civilians.

As NPR reports, Russian officials have made “conflicting and at times ridiculously false claims” about these strikes. That includes claiming that the attack on the Amstor Mall, where at least 20 people were killed and 60 injured, actually hurt no one because “the mall was empty” and besides, Russia didn’t really hit the mall in the first place.

There are indications that Russia would like to actually hit some of the military targets. They just can’t. Their weapons are either not accurate enough to pick out the right target, or unable to get past air defenses. A reasonable leader might decide to hold off firing a missile that can’t possibly generate any military benefit, and the use of which is likely to only add to a growing list of war crimes.

But then, a reasonable leader wouldn’t have started this illegal invasion in the first place.

Are Ukraine’s targeted attacks on ammo depots having an unexpectedly strong effect? Take a look at this.

NASA FIRMS data / Eastern Ukraine / July 6, 2022

This withering level of fire is repeated on July 7, and July 8, and July 9. Then, on July 10 … something happens.

NASA FIRMS data / Eastern Ukraine / July 10, 2022

There is an abrupt drop off in the number of hotspots across the whole region. It would be easy to attribute this to weather — afterall, FIRMS goes quiet when there is heavy rain or overcast — but the whole area has been either sunny or partly cloudy over the last three days, also FIRMS data for other areas in Ukraine has barely flickered over this period.

Finally, you can look at either of the last two days and you get something like this. Which is just … eerie.

NASA FIRMS data / Eastern Ukraine / July 11, 2022

It would be great to think that Ukraine’s attacks on Russian ammo depots had been so effective that they’ve completely turned off the taps. On the other hand, much of the fire seen back on July 6 was directed outward, into Russian positions. It makes no sense that both Ukraine and Russia would go quiet at the same time. With no fire visible from either side, the problem is almost certainly with the FIRMS data, even if things do seem to be carrying on normally near Donetsk or Kherson.


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