The generally accepted view on the current state of the Russo-Ukraine war is that the Ukrainian summer counter-offensive against the occupiers, which promised much, has actually delivered little. Progress over the last six months has been minimal.
The reasons for this are many and varied and have been written about many times before, but essentially the UkrAF just doesn’t have the means or wherewithal in men and equipment to break the Russian lines. It seems that stalemate now reigns over the battlefields.
Not that those involved in the actual fighting will notice much difference. At unit level combat continues with unabated ferocity along the front. For instance, Russia continues to attack persistently around the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainian defenders continue to resist equally doggedly. Little territory is exchanged.
However, there is a distinct possibility that the UkrAF are making small but significant gains in the western theatre of operations, in the Kherson Oblast. According to President Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, his forces have secured a foothold on the east bank of the Dnipro River, the first official acknowledgement that Ukrainian troops have done so.
Russia captured the Kherson region in the early days of its offensive in February 2022, but late last year withdrew from the city of Kherson itself and from the west bank of the Dnipro, shelling the abandoned territory intermittently ever since from their new positions on the east bank.
Hitherto the Ukrainians have been reluctant to comment upon developments as their forces reached the Russian-controlled bank in small numbers, but are being more open now that their lodgement is expanding and stabilising.
Geolocated pictures published on social media show that the UkrAF have now entered the settlement of Krynky, some nineteen miles (roughly thirty kilometres) west of Kherson City and approximately 1.2 miles (2 kilometres) south of the Dnipro.
It looks as if they plan to stay, and if the Ukrainians are able to reinforce the bridgehead with sufficient quantities of heavy equipment, no small ask in itself, then the Russians may have a problem here. But whether Kyiv can pour enough troops and equipment across the Dnipro and through the swampy area surrounding Krynky remains to be seen.
As Russian military blogger Voenkor Kitten has written, “If 10-14 days ago on this side of the Dnipro the enemy had 50 to 70 people on the bridgehead, now they have 300 people in the area of Kyrnky. The goal is not a full-fledged offensive, but … to work on the infrastructure of the land corridor to Crimea”.
They are now presented with a growing dilemma; whether to continue their efforts in the east and commit their reserves there, or to use those same reserves to bolster their defences against the new threat in the west.
From the Ukrainian point of view, and with their counteroffensive largely bogged down elsewhere, any advance in Kherson will help relieve the pressure on Kyiv’s forces in Zaporizhzhia by drawing these Russian reinforcements. In addition, any serious advance out of Krynky – located a little more than 40 miles north of Crimea – could benefit Ukraine’s ongoing efforts on the peninsula as well.
I have written before that Crimea is the key terrain, the strategic prize if you like, in the ongoing conflict. He who controls Crimea controls the Black Sea. Both sides are well aware of this, and the Russians who occupy it are highly unlikely to give it up without being forced to do so.
However, holding on to the peninsula is becoming increasingly difficult. With the inflow of western long range precision weapons like Storm Shadow and ATACMS to arm the UkrAF, they now have the means to interdict, disrupt, and destroy Russian military bases and communications there. And they have demonstrated more than once that the Russians main escape route across the Kerch Bridge is vulnerable to attack.
It is a distinct possibility, therefore, that the Russian positions in Crimea will only be sustainable at the expense of heavy losses in blood and treasure. And if the Ukrainians make significant progress towards Melitopol further east their occupation there could well become untenable.
As Ukrainian chief of staff Yermak said; “Step by step [Ukrainian forces] are demilitarizing Crimea. We have covered 70% of the distance. And our counteroffensive continues.”
Who knows what might happen when spring arrives?
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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