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Has Ukraine launched its counteroffensive?

Roman Goncharenko
September 1, 2022

There are signs a Ukrainian counteroffensive is underway in the country's south. Military experts tell DW the time and place are right for Ukraine to strike back at Russian forces.

A damaged shopping mall in the city of Kherson in July, 2022
Kherson has been badly damaged during the war with Russia, including this shopping mall seen in JulyImage: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Can Ukraine push Russian forces out of the country's south, as it managed to do in the north? If so, how soon could this be achieved? Ukrainians these days are preoccupied with questions like these. While there is growing evidence a counteroffensive is already underway to retake Kherson, the situation on the ground remains opaque.

Secretive Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it tried and failed to capture the capital, Kyiv. In March, Russian forces pulled back from their position north of the city and Ukraine resumed control.

Now, Ukraine hopes to drive out Russian forces from the occupied south. Its focus lies on the city of Kherson, just northwest of Russia-occupied Crimea. On Monday, Ukrainian army representatives said "offensive operations" were being conducted in the south.

Western media reported that several villages had already been retaken by Ukraine. The country's leadership, however, has been reluctant to comment, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said no details of the campaign would be made public.

While Ukraine has refused to confirm or deny a counteroffensive is taking place, Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces had repelled a recent counterattack. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, told DW that "it does have the feeling of the beginning of something large, but we're not sure yet. There's a lot more to unfold in the next few days." 

Can Kyiv push the Russian army back?

Why Kherson is so important

Kherson is the largest city in Ukraine under Russian occupation. In the early stages of the war, Russian forces quickly moved north from annexed Crimea, establishing a land corridor with mainland Russia and conquering large swathes of coastal areas along the Sea of Azov and Black Sea. These regions are of great strategic importance, as their ports were used by Ukraine to exports goods.

The Dnieper River, which flows though the region, used to provide drinking water to Crimea. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Ukraine cut off this water supply. But since Russia conquered the area, its army has begun directing water back to the peninsula via a canal.

Hodges: Time, place promising for counterattack  

For weeks, there has been speculation over a potential counteroffensive in the south. Speaking to British daily The Times in June, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the president had ordered that the country's coastal regions be retaken. Yet for now, nobody can say with certainty if this offensive is already underway.

Experts, however, have said the timing would be ideal. "If Ukraine does launch its offensive, they will have picked the right time and place to do it," said Hodges. 

A bridge across the Dnieper River damaged by Ukrainian attacks
Bridges across the Dnieper River have come under attack by both Russian and Ukrainian forcesImage: Sergei Bobylev/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

With heavy weapons supplied by the West, above all the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), Ukraine is striking Russian supply lines east of the Dnieper River near Kherson. The city itself is situated on the western bank of the river, making it difficult for Russia to send reinforcements.

Satellite images also prove that Ukraine's army has successfully damaged several bridges in the area near Kherson. HIMARS have also been deployed to attack Russian command and control posts in the area, said Hodges.

Colder months could complicate campaign

Ukraine's counterattack has sparked great expectations among the civilian population, who want to see its army not only hold but also take back territory.

"Kyiv is under pressure to not just play defence but go on the offense," military analyst Bradley Bowman of the US-based FDD think tank told DW, adding that this desire was understandable given everything Ukraine had so far endured.

In addition, he said, Ukraine should go ahead with the campaign now, as the window of opportunity may soon close. Reports of Russian reinforcements to the region have already surfaced. Russia has also been making arrangements to hold a referendum to justify its annexation of southern Ukraine, just as it did in Crimea in 2014. Ukraine's leadership is therefore under considerable pressure to act.

A HIMARS unit, photographed in September 2019
HIMARS have played a major role in Ukraine's efforts to drive back Russian forcesImage: Kento Nara/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Speaking to DW, British military expert Justin Crump said Ukraine's recent campaign "certainly looks like a much more significant offensive operation — it does seem to fall in line with what the president wanted." Colder, wetter weather in autumn and winter will, however, complicate efforts to retake territory.

In a video address to G7 leaders in June, President Zelenskyy said he wanted to end the war by winter. Yet when a DW reporter brought up this point in late August, Zelenskyy refused to take a clear stand on the matter. He did, however, say Ukraine is determined to defend itself and will only negotiate with Russia when it feels compelled to do so.

This article was originally published in German.