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Ukraine battles for Kherson, gateway to Crimea

Roman Goncharenko
November 10, 2022

Russia says it is withdrawing from Kherson, the only regional capital it has captured since it invaded Ukraine.

A Ukrainian servicewoman fires a large weapon, which spurts out flames
The Ukrainian army has been fighting back with heavy weaponry in the Kherson regionImage: REUTERS

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announcement of his army's withdrawal from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine wasn’t exactly unexpected.  

Russia’s new commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, had already spoken of "difficult decisions" to make regarding Kherson back in October.

Above all, Ukrainian strikes on the strategically important Antonivskyi Bridge made it difficult for Russia to supply their troops on the right bank of the Dnieper, Ukraine's longest river. As part of the counteroffensive that began at the end of August, Ukrainian soldiers are moving ever closer to Kherson. 

Struggle for fresh water in Crimea

Russia captured the entire Kherson region during the early days of the invasion. Military resistance was minimal, and the region's capital city, Kherson, home to some 280,000 people, was occupied in early March.

Amateur videos show how Ukrainian civilians, most of whom speak Russian, protested the Russian troops. No other region of Ukraine was occupied so quickly. It remains unclear how this was possible, and the question remains a painful one for the government in Kyiv.

People in winter clothing stand in an urban street and wave Ukrainian flags in the air
Ukrainians protested against Russia's takeover of Kherson in the early days of the invasionImage: Yanis Obarchuk

The region of Kherson extends some 28,500 square kilometers (11,000 square miles), making it nearly as large as Belgium. The landscape is characterized by steppes — wide open spaces as far as the eye can see. Viewed strategically, it may well be the most important region of southern Ukraine due to its access to two seas: the Sea of Azov in the east and the Black Sea in the west. 

More importantly: the region of Kherson offers the only land connection to Crimea. It is the gateway to the peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 — and this gateway has remained largely open during the Russian invasion. No bridges were blown up, which could have halted troop deployments. Large Russian units in Crimea were able to advance hundreds of kilometers to the north.

Russia's principal goal during that operation was likely gaining control of the North Crimean Canal, which starts near the city of Nova Kakhovka, some 80 kilometers east of Kherson, and ends in the Crimean city of Kerch. The peninsula is chronically short of water; ever since Soviet times, it has received fresh water from the Dnieper via this canal. Following the annexation, Ukraine stopped this water flow, which led to problems for the peninsula's water-intensive agriculture industry. In response, Russia blew up a dam that had been built in 2014, once again restoring the water supply.

A parched area of land with cracked earth
Crimea receives fresh water via the North Crimean Canal. Supply cutoffs following Russia's annexation resulted in shortfallsImage: Alexei Pavlishak/TASS/picture alliance

By occupying Kherson and other cities near the mouth of the Dnieper, the Russian army was also simultaneously able to block Ukraine's all-important water access to the Black Sea.

Kherson known for shipbuilding and watermelons

Kherson is best known for its shipbuilding industry. The city at the mouth of the Dnieper was founded at the end of the 18th century, when the region was part of the Russian Empire. It was named after the ancient Greek settlement Chersonesus in Crimea.

Kherson is home to the oldest seaport on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, and it is where the first warships for the Russian Black Sea fleet were built. Since Soviet times, Kherson has specialized in civilian freight ships, including tankers. In February 2022, just a few days before the Russian invasion, the shipyard announced it had signed a contract for the construction of four cargo ships for the Netherlands. 

When Ukrainians think of Kherson, however, the first thing that comes to mind is not ships, but watermelons and tomatoes. Kherson watermelons are particularly legendary. Every year, starting in August, Ukrainian stores are full of the sweet fruit — though not this year. Across social networks, photos of Ukrainian soldiers holding a watermelon in their hands have become a symbol of territorial recapture.

A shirtless man holds up a slice of watermelon in front of a wooden trough filled with many more watermelons.
Watermelons from Kherson are well-known across UkraineImage: DW/L. Grischko

The Kherson region is famous for its cultivation of fruits and vegetables. It boasts some 2 million hectares of agricultural land — the most in all of Ukraine, and nearly twice as much as in the Netherlands. It should come as no surprise that the first Ukrainian ketchup manufacturer, Chumak, was founded there in 1993, in the city of Kakhovka. The company, which was started by two Swedes, is considered one of independent Ukraine's success stories. Its website proudly notes that it owns Europe's largest cucumber field. 

Kakhovka was occupied by Russian troops during the first days of the war. Chumak, currently number two on the Ukrainian market, halted production and moved its headquarters to Kyiv.

Cautious Ukrainian reactions

In response to Russia’s withdrawal announcement from Kherson, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for restraint.

"The enemy doesn't give us gifts or gestures of goodwill. We get all of this by fighting for it," he said in a speech on the evening of November 9.

Zelenskyy also warned Russia that any attempt to blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, flood Ukrainian territory and leaving the Zaporizhia nuclear power station without water would mean that Russia is “declaring war on the whole world.” 

Presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said Ukraine sees no signs that Russia is giving up Kherson without a fight. A significant number of Russian troops were still in the city, he said, and additional reserves were being concentrated in the region.

Putin urges civilians to leave Kherson

This article has been translated from German. It was originally published on September 9, 2022 and was updated to reflect recent events on November 10, 2022.