- Ukrainian forces close in on Russian-controlled Kherson
- Recapturing the city would be a major victory in the war
- Kherson acts as a gateway to Crimea, annexed in 2014
- Soldiers in the trenches foresee a fierce battle ahead
FRONT LINE WEST OF KHERSON, Ukraine, November 4 (Reuters) – Oleh, the commander of a Ukrainian mechanized infantry unit dug into trenches west of Kherson, is confident his Russian enemies will be forced to abandon the strategic port by winter weather, logistical bottlenecks and the threat of encirclement.
But neither he nor his men think the Russians will go fast or quiet, nor do they intend to let them.
His remarks raise the specter of a bloody drudgery in the coming weeks for control of a key town on the west bank of the Dnipro river which acts as a gateway to the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
“They will keep fighting. They will defend their positions as long as they have the ability,” said Oleh, 26, a seasoned major who has risen through the ranks since enlisting as a teenager 10 years ago. “It will be a tough fight.”
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed administration in the Kherson region, said on Thursday he hoped Russian forces would fight.
“If we leave Kherson, it will be a blow,” he added, in comments broadcast by Russian television RT.
The contest for the only provincial capital seized by Moscow in the full-scale invasion launched on February 24 could be one of the biggest in the war so far.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it would be another setback after a string of heavy battlefield casualties since mid-August.
With control of the western bank of the Dnipro, military experts said, Ukrainian forces would have a springboard from which to seize a bridgehead on the eastern side for an advance on Crimea.
Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and Kyiv has made reclaiming the peninsula its sworn goal.
If Kherson fell in the counteroffensive, the experts added, it would also be a political humiliation for Putin, because Kherson is one of the four partially occupied regions of Ukraine which he announced would be part of Russia” forever” with great fanfare. September 30.
“It would be a blow, mainly politically,” said Philip Ingram, a retired senior British military intelligence officer. “And that would cost him (Putin) militarily. If the Ukrainians could get a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Dnipro, it would be even worse for the Russians.”
The Ukrainians “will be able to hammer the Russians defending the approaches to Crimea,” said retired US General Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army forces in Europe.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the Russians had already begun “an organized and gradual withdrawal” from the west bank of the Dnipro.
ITCH TO ATTACK
Thousands of civilians from the city and surrounding areas have been evacuated to the eastern side of the Dnipro in recent weeks after Russian-appointed occupation authorities warned of the dangers posed by Ukrainian advances.
On Friday, Putin publicly endorsed the evacuation, which Kyiv says included forcible expulsions of civilians out of Russian-occupied territory – a war crime – which Russia denies.
Occupation authorities have also moved administrative offices and archives to the eastern bank, and a Western source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most Russian commanders have also moved their bases.
The US official and Ukrainian commanders said the Russians had reinforced their front lines, including deploying recently mobilized reservists, in an effort to better protect the withdrawal.
Some Ukrainian soldiers believe that poorly trained Russian reservists are being sent “like lambs to the slaughter”, while more experienced troops are digging defensive lines further, according to the US official.
An orderly withdrawal could prove difficult for the Russians, requiring coordination, deception to conceal movements, communications discipline, and intense artillery barrages to suppress Ukrainian advances.
But Ukrainian troops could also face serious obstacles that could block their takeover of Kherson, including booby traps and concentrated Russian artillery and rocket fire from the east bank, Hodges said.
As the parties fought intermittent artillery duels on Friday, Oleh’s 100-man unit took advantage of unusually mild weather to clean weapons and install floors in earth and log-covered bunkers that are lined thermally insulated and equipped with portable generators and wood. stoves.
The unit, with six armored personnel carriers, took up positions in September after Ukrainian forces pushed back Russian troops at Kherson’s border with Mykolaiv province.
Oleh said the Russians were running out of time because January would bring ice floes to the Dnipro which could block ferry operations.
He is eager to hit the enemy’s weak points to sow panic among the reservists which could turn into a rout.
“If we don’t start an attack, they will just sit there,” he said. “The mobilized do us good because they generate panic. Panic is contagious like a disease. It spreads.”
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Daniel Wallis
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