KHERSON REGION BORDER, Ukraine — The road to occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine leads through a no man’s land of charred wheat fields and cratered villages. The tails of the rockets protrude from the asphalt and the thunder of the artillery that goes in and out bounces off the abandoned and tidy houses.
Along a jagged front, Ukrainian forces are preparing for what is one of the most ambitious and significant military actions of the war: to retake Kherson. The first city to fall to Russian forces, Kherson and the fertile lands around it are a key Russian beachhead, from which its army launches continuous attacks across a wide swath of Ukrainian territory. Regaining control could also help restore Ukraine’s momentum and give its troops a much-needed morale boost after months of fierce fighting.
“We want to liberate our territory and return everything to our control,” said Senior Lieutenant Sergei Savchenko, whose unit with Ukraine’s 28th Brigade is entrenched along the western border of the Kherson region. “We’re ready. We’ve wanted this for a long time.”
Fighting on the western and northern borders of the region is already intensifying as Ukrainian forces, currently some 30 miles from the city at their closest point, lay the groundwork for a major offensive push. For a month, Ukrainian artillery and rocket forces have been softening up Russian positions, using a variety of new Western-supplied weapons, such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, provided by the United States.
The strikes, some captured on video, destroyed forward command centers and key ammunition depots, erupting in brilliant fireballs when hit, Ukrainian officials say. They claim that hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed and that the attacks have disrupted Russia’s logistics infrastructure. Supply depots and command positions have been moved from the front lines, they say, making it difficult to keep soldiers armed and fed. His claims cannot be independently verified.
“You could compare it to waves,” said a senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “Right now we are making small waves and creating conditions to make bigger waves.”
Unlike in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where a huge Russian force slowly captured a province in recent weeks, the Ukrainian military appears to have begun to turn the tide in the Kherson region, albeit hesitantly.
After losing control of most of the region in the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian troops have now liberated 44 towns and villages along the border areas, about 15 percent of the territory, according to the military governor. of the region, Dmytro Butrii. Ukraine’s top officials have not given a clear timetable for retaking Kherson, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that it is a top priority.
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“Our forces are moving into the region step by step,” Zelensky said this week.
Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive in the south has sparked a debate among Western officials and some analysts over whether Ukraine was ready for such a massive effort or if it is the best use of resources when Russian advances have been mainly in the Donbas.
Still, Ukrainian officials and several Western intelligence officials said it was important that Ukraine try to launch a counterattack. They say the Russian military is in a relatively weaker position, having expended weapons and personnel in its Donbas offensive. Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, predicted that the Russians would be forced to pause, offering Ukrainian forces an opportunity.
However, any effort to regain significant territory would be a huge undertaking. Russian forces have now occupied the Kherson region for almost five months and have been largely unmolested in their efforts to strengthen military positions and prepare for an assault. They have installed new leaders in the city itself, as well as in the main towns and villages.
A counterattack would require large numbers of troops and far more offensive weapons systems than Ukraine has available at the moment, some Western and Ukrainian officials say. Ukraine is spending about 6,000 to 8,000 shells per day in general. If he were to start an active attack on Kherson, he would need three to four times as many.
Aleksei Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, has spoken of the need to raise a million-man army to recapture the land Ukraine has lost in the war. The Kherson region is largely rural, but the city of Kherson is a sprawling metropolis that straddles the Dnipro River. Retrieving it could involve fierce urban fighting with huge losses of soldiers and property.
“We see Kherson as the next Fallujah,” said Michael Maldonado, a 34-year-old former US Marine from Kansas who joined the 28th Brigade. “There are going to be a lot of crazy fights.”
The Ukrainian military will also have to consider the large number of civilians. The city has lost about a third of its pre-war population of around 300,000, but an all-out attack involving bombing could put those left behind at great risk, something the Ukrainian authorities appear to be. mindful.
Last month, Iryna Vereshchuk, deputy prime minister, urged residents of Kherson and the surrounding region to evacuate. “Please go because our army will definitely vacate these lands,” she said. “Our will to do it is unshakable.”
In the villages now controlled by the Ukrainian 28th Brigade along Kherson’s western border, only the daredevils remain on the surface for long. Black mushroom clouds hang on the horizon and artillery shells whiz back and forth across the crop fields. This week, the brigade commander, Vitaly Gulyaev, was killed in a rocket attack.
“Every day, we shoot at them and they hit us back, but they don’t move forward,” Lt. Savchenko said. “For now we are holding this territory, but as soon as there is an order, as soon as we have the possibility to do so, we will move forward.”
Russian forces moved through the area early in the war, heading west along the Black Sea coast toward Ukraine’s crucial port city of Odessa. But they stopped halfway. Fierce Ukrainian resistance around the town of Mykolaiv pushed Russian troops into the Kherson region, where they remain.
Most of the residents have fled from the front towns. The few that remained spend most of their time in bunkers or cellars.
Larisa Maslii, 74, and her husband have lived in the basement below their house since the war broke out on February 24. Ms. Maslii never goes out these days, although her husband comes home regularly to take care of the family pets: a dog, a cat and a hamster. They have outfitted the basement with tents and LED lights and receive occasional visits from a Ukrainian military chaplain who looks after them.
“We have put our trust in God and in our bomb shelter,” he said.
“Send more weapons,” he added, “so we can kick them out.”
To help prepare the ground for an offensive, Ukraine’s military intelligence service has been quietly training a legion of subversives, sending them into occupied territory to carry out acts of sabotage and provide information on the location of Russian troops. Officials installed by the Russian occupation authorities have been killed and, in some cases, had their cars blown up.
In a ramshackle hotel not far from Odessa, a mother of four named Natalya seems like an unlikely warrior. She fled her farm in the area in April after Russian troops began coming to her home looking for subversive materials.
Although he lives in exile in another part of the country, he still tries to be useful in resisting Russia. Her husband, who stayed behind her, calls her regularly with information about the latest Russian military moves in the region, she said.
“He tells me where they are placed,” he said. “And I pass it on to our guys, the military.”
Until recently, Natalya said, her husband had begun to lose heart. She could no longer hear the Ukrainian gunfire, she explained, and she felt as if she had been abandoned. Then the cannons started again.
“Our boys started shooting and I could see that their morale had improved,” Natalya said, as her mother wept beside her, cursing the Russian army.
Marc Santora contributed reporting from London.
marc santora, Julian E. Barnes Y Eric Schmitt contributed report.