GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Kherson falls may be a game changer

Yesterday the city of Kherson fell to Russian forces, so we have to reassess the situation. Kherson is an important part of any strategy to cross southern Ukraine and create a coastal “Crimean Corridor”. Kherson is a city of about 300,000 people, about the same number as Wellington. It is important due to its strategic position on the Dnieper River near the coast, it is an important railway junction and has an airport with a 2500 meter runway capable of handling medium-sized transport aircraft.

A common thread in this discussion concerns the logistics of military operations. Every infantryman needs to be supported by many other people who provide food, fuel, ammunition, medical care and other supplies. This is why cities are important for military planners, they have roads and large concrete areas that make it easier to move and unload large trucks. Cities have water, electricity and hospitals. Buildings can be repurposed to house headquarters, provide housing for soldiers, and store supplies.

By capturing Kherson, the Russians now had an area that could provide a logistical base for an advance on the main Ukrainian city on the Black Sea coast, Odessa. Once Kherson is safe, it is likely that the Russians will establish a logistics center there and start pushing towards Odessa. The airport is easily large enough for Russian tactical airlifters and helicopters to use, providing a beachhead that could quickly bring troops and supplies to the area.

Will the capture of Kherson see a change in Russia’s main effort?

Kiev remains the political and cultural heart of Ukraine. If it is in Russian hands, they can claim victory and install a puppet Ukrainian government. However, as we discussed, Kyiv is an increasingly difficult problem to solve. Yesterday we discussed the dilemma that Putin faces as the options for “victory” recede. A change of direction to the south and capturing the “Crimean Corridor” seems like a good option. Securing the Black Sea coast and creating a land corridor connecting Russia to Transnistria could save face even if Kyiv is not captured.

The question is, can Russia do it? Odessa is about 150 kilometers from Kherson, roughly the distance between Auckland and Hamilton, and the advance must cross a number of major rivers. However, the Russians still have a large strategic reserve of airborne forces and their successful amphibious operations a week ago demonstrated their ability to land troops from the sea. These types of forces could be used to jump along the coast by capturing bridges before the advance of conventional forces.

If the Russians have the means, it seems logical that they advance towards Odessa. The city has considerable cultural and historical significance and is a major Black Sea port. But it will take time, they must first secure Kherson, then rest and replenish their forces. We will soon see activity pushing west and possibly north along the Dnieper from Kherson, but I think we should expect about a week before Odessa is decisively engaged.

The pressure will be kept on Kiev, there are reports that the Russian advance has slowed or stopped. However, it is impossible to deduce much from this information except that Russia has air superiority in the local area. Progress could slow down for many reasons. Ukrainian attacks or because the Russians are setting the pace, slowing the advance to consolidate their forces and prepare for a deliberate and well-planned attack.

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Yesterday I discussed the Royal United Services Institute’s assessment of the Ukrainian army’s offensive capabilities. The assessment indicated that the Ukrainian army had lost its ability to fight offensively. However, over the past 24 hours there have been media reports of Ukrainian counterattacks and it is important to provide some context. The Ukrainian counterattacks are relatively small local attacks and hardly change the larger assessment and do not demonstrate an ability to defeat the Russians in a conventional manner.

The developments provide context for the second round of talks between Ukraine and Russia which began around 3am this morning New Zealand time. The discussions will be interesting and will give insight into Russian strategy. If concessions are made, it is likely that the Russians will seek a negotiated face-saving solution, perhaps securing a Crimean corridor, their withdrawal from the north followed by a truce. A peace that, of course, would be temporary while the Russians planned their next move.

Or if the Russians take a hard line, it could mean either a longer and bloodier war, or possibly a nuclear escalation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the recent warning of a courteous and experienced diplomat “that if a Third World War were to occur, it would involve nuclear weapons and would be destructiveis a disturbing, Lavrov is not known for his rhetoric. Statements like this are used by Russia to deter NATO intervention, but such threats carry much more weight coming from a man like Lavrov and could indicate a willingness to use nuclear forces.

So at the end of D+8 let’s look at our predictions:

  • Today, Kiev may no longer be the decisive point of the campaign. The main Russian effort could begin to move south after the fall of Kherson. It is too early to tell and today’s negotiations will reveal more. However, don’t expect any respite for Kyiv, it will continue to be threatened and bombarded with holding back Ukrainian forces that could be used elsewhere.
  • Expect to see a lot of activity around Kherson as the Russians probe outwards both to keep Ukrainian forces at bay while they rebuild and secure the city and search for weaknesses that may be exploited either by advancing north towards Kiev or west towards Odessa.
  • The battle for Kiev is progressing as expected, slowly and will not advance significantly today as long as negotiations are ongoing.
  • Russia’s nuclear rhetoric continues, there is a risk of a nuclear show of force. Sergei Lavrov’s statement is important and will be interpreted with caution by NATO analysts.
  • Continue to expect reports of the mobilization and movement of more Russian troops into Ukraine.

In summary, yesterday was an interesting day punctuated by the fall of Kherson and the start of a second round of negotiations. Although it is too early to assess the effect of the fall of Kherson on the wider campaign, it could provide the Russians with sensible non-nuclear options for “winning” the war.

The question is whether the Russians have the conventional combat power in the south to mount a major offensive. Initially, their advances in the south were rapid, and in this area they had more local support, perhaps allowing them to continue threatening Kiev while developing a new offensive in the south. Time will tell us.

Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.