The battle for Kherson is critical — as almost every part of Ukraine’s entire 1,500-mile battlefront has been at one time or another since February 24. This time it is an acute test for both sides. It’s a test for the whole alliance backing Kyiv, as well as Russia.
Since August 24 some of the most experienced Ukrainian ground units have been working their way around the Russian defensive positions in Kherson west of the Dnipro River. It’s been hard pounding. Some of the fiercest battles have been reported at the mouth of the river.
The war in Ukraine has slipped out of the headlines — not by the accidental whim of the international news cycle but more by deliberate design by President Zelensky’s cunning media operation. For the new British prime minister Ukraine is a key part of foreign and defence policy, a priority they cannot ignore.
Defence ministers and chiefs of staff are in Ramstein this Thursday to meet Ukrainian counterparts to decide the next phase of strategy and assistance. For Zelensky it isn’t a call to arms, but a call for more and different arms.
In pushing his forces to go on the offensive in Kherson and chosen parts of the Donetsk front, Zelensky aims to show that they can seize the initiative, and win — psychologically and tactically, if not strategically. Some of his most experienced commanders have believed a big push involving up to 25,000 professional troops was a risk too far — reserves are thin, raw, and quite untrained for an ambitious manoeuvre campaign. His forces intend to show that they can maintain a viable Ukraine through a difficult winter ahead. Survival through to spring means some sort of success, if not victory. After ten days of fighting Kyiv has been dialing down on expectations — the official line is now that the aims for the Kherson push are more “limited”. The fear is that an all-out attempt to take the city itself risks huge bloodshed — a meat grinder lasting months, a miniature Verdun, the terrible battle in the Great War that cost 700,000 casualties.
The Ukrainians need to build up a fully capable modern force of at least 60,000 by early next year, if they are to recover substantial parts of occupied Donbas and southern Ukraine. These forces will need full air support. At present they rely on rocket fire from systems like HIMARS and MLRS, partly supplied by Britain. They need some means of delivering swift support from the air, from ground attack aircraft, which have been all but absent.
The problem is that key allies, including the Americans, for all their generosity have been unwilling to provide some lethal battlefield weaponry, including fighter-bombers. The longest range rockets for the MLRS and HIMARS have been withheld, and America has been reluctant to facilitate the delivery of attack aircraft from allies like the Czech Republic.
The excuse is that the allies shouldn’t provide weapons that can strike into Russian territory — though they have helped the attacks on Crimea. Deliberately underarming Kyiv at this juncture is a worse sin; it could prove a fatal blunder. Another area where Ukraine needs better support is in anti-aircraft and missile defences for its main cities, something on the lines of the Israeli Iron Dome system. Much US reluctance is attributed to the national security adviser Jake Sullivan. If he is rowing back on some of the most potent tactical weapons — in the hope of getting talks going — he must be called out. No talks are likely this year, or most of next.
Two details hint that things are not going well for Putin. The special referendum for Kherson to vote to join Russia has been put off. Russia is reported to be buying up artillery shells from North Korean stock and drones of dodgy quality from Iran.
The most brilliant critique of the Ukraine war has just appeared in “Command” by veteran strategist Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman. The book is about the tangles of command, politicians playing soldiers and soldiers playing politician in nine wars of this century. Ukraine is Putin’s war, and his creation alone, says Freedman, overriding his generals and security and political cronies. Russia’s fate, and much global security, depend on how it pans out for him