It’s not necessary for an occupying power to win a battle in order to cause irredeemable damage. They don’t even have to destroy a building. After all, they have something that gives them a leverage unmatched by the people giving everything in the effort to drive them out: hostages. Thousands, even millions, of hostages.
In the Kherson region, those hostages mean that while Russia is free to unlimber all the artillery it wants at Ukrainian positions, Ukraine is extremely reluctant to point its big guns back toward the towns and villages where Russian forces are crouching. Just like any advance, retaking a position requires application of more force than holding it, and when the people on one side are more concerned about capturing territory without destroying homes and threatening civilians, that difficulty goes up by an order of magnitude.
What Russia did in capturing territory was amputation. What Ukraine is trying to do now is surgery. It’s harder. It takes longer. It’s frustrating to those who want a quick response.
Unfortunately, that delay means that Russia is also using its hostages in another way. In several areas controlled by Russia, but in Kherson in particular, those hostages are being subjected to a daily gamut of challenges meant to break their will, change the way they think, and surrender their hope.
Across the city, Russia is taking away signs, papers, and books written in Ukrainian and replacing them with ones written in Russian. Citizens are being drafted to help in this effort in an extremely effective way. Russian troops have erected checkpoints throughout the city, halting and demanding papers from those who try to pass. People have been, and are still being, shot in the street for being out without proper paperwork. How to get proper paperwork? Agree to help in remaking the city into a Russian colony.
Schools, which are preparing to reopen in the area, are being given Russian textbooks and a Russian curriculum—a curriculum that teaches that the nation of Ukraine does not exist, and that anyone who claims otherwise is a traitor. So far, only two out of 60 school administrators have agreed to go along with this, but don’t expect that opposition to last. During the first days of Russian occupation, there were many images of citizens in Kherson protesting against Russia. Such events have become much less common, not because the people there have decided Russia is not so bad, but because they’ve seen how hundreds have been hauled away, never to reappear, when they’ve said something judged to be anti-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. Russia often follows a pattern in Kherson that is also followed in Moscow. Don’t stop people immediately, but take down names for later.
From a distance, the idea that people pointing a gun at everyday citizens, demanding papers, and then taking them away for any sign of opposition might claim to be “getting rid of Nazis” seems ironic. From up close, it just seems terrifying.
People in Kherson are now able to get only Russian phones. Watch only Russian television. Read only Russian newspapers. Moscow has put in place procedures which will, in the next few weeks, make them all “Russian citizens.” There has been some pretense, off and on, of having a “referendum” in the city to officially align Kherson with Russia. But that’s not really necessary. The Kremlin has declared that Kherson is “Russia forever.” This is a good, old-fashioned, war of conquest after all, and Kherson is one of Russia’s fattest prizes.
According to the Ukrainian southern command, things in Kherson are getting steadily worse. Russia has tightened up the borders of the region, making it much more difficult to escape from the occupied area. In fact, just about the only road available leads straight out of Kherson and … into Crimea. The crackdown on what Russia now views as dissidents is getting harder. The transformation of the city into a Russian outpost is accelerating. The numbers of those being disappeared is growing.
As Ukrainian forces attempt to move toward the city, Russian forces are engaged in a predictable response—they are shelling every village and town that Ukraine captures, making the approach of the Ukrainian army something like the trumpet of doom. They’re creating the destruction Ukraine has been working to avoid.
In some areas, like the bridgehead established across the Inhulets River south of Davydiv Brid, Ukraine seems to be taking these actions into account. They’re not driving to take and hold that town, or others along the river. They’re not driving village to village over the highways. They’re establishing a broad front, moving across fields, taking advantage of the weather and terrain to advance without creating unnecessary confrontations. But that can’t continue. No matter what route Ukraine takes into the city, there is going to be destruction. Because Russia is not about to let Kherson go without causing as much pain as possible.
There are fights going on at so many points along the line between Ukrainian forces and Russian forces in Kherson oblast, that almost every point of intersect might be considered an area of active fighting. At the northern end of the line, Ukrainian troops are still attempting to seize Vysokopillya, which Russia has turned into a regional nexus for command and control. Taking that town could be especially important in thwarting what is rumored to be a Russian force organizing for another run toward Kryvyi Rih to the north.
In the middle of the line, that bridgehead on the east of the Inhulets continues to expand, in spite of Russian claims that it has been eliminated. Reports have put forces much farther south than indicated here, but without any details or confirmation, I’m leaving the borders where they are for the moment. Even if this force is driving hard for the bridge at Nova Kakhovka, as many tweets and Telegram messages insist, it seems impossible for them to get there without first pushing past significant Russian defenses.
At the south end of the line, Ukrainian forces are once again within 15 km of Kherson. But just ahead of them are two sets of Russian defensive lines. One just south of Kyselivka and another immediately outside the city. As in the force south of Davydiv Brid, there have been confusing reports, including some that suggest Ukrainian forces are in the immediate suburbs of Kherson. But there seems no evidence to support this claim. For now.
One point of dispute that is also a point of confusion: there have been multiple posts indicating fighting in the area of Tamaryne. Whether this represents Ukrainian forces moving in from the area around Snihurivka, which is still largely held by Russia, or whether it shows the force to the north moving in an unexpected direction, it’s unclear how this connects to other actions.
At this point, Severodonetsk might as well be it’s own “front” (though if Russian forces manage to get close to Lysychansk from another direction, that could change).
For anyone who thinks all the foreign volunteers who went into Severodonetsk are gone, listen to the dialog in this video.
As far as what’s going on in the city … fighting continues. There have been claims from Russia and from the Luhansk nationalists that LNR forces killed Ukrainian soldiers in the industrial zone overnight. Didn’t happen. There have been claims that either Russia or Ukraine has “begun to withdraw.” Hasn’t happened. Russia still seems determined to capture the city by the arbitrary deadline of June 10. Ukraine still seems determined to fight it out. But there is little doubt both sides, and the civilians trapped in the battered city, are taking tremendous losses. Ukraine still might decide to withdraw, and has the opportunity to move across the river if things get desperate.
On Wednesday, President Volodomyr Zelenskyy praised the “heroic defense” of the city, but also admitted that Russian forces outnumber Ukrainian forces in the city and stated that withdrawal is an option.
In spite of continued gains by Ukrainian forces in the area, Russian troops on Tuesday and Wednesday engaged in the one thing they are still capable of in the Kharkiv area—lobbying artillery and missiles into the city to cause pain and misery for civilians. These attacks don’t even have the appearance of a military objective. They’re just trying to hurt people. And so long as Russia holds on to Lyptsi, less than 20km from the city, they can do this easily and cheaply. So they are.
Not much has really changed hands in the area since Ukraine took Vesele and outlying villages over the weekend. Russian reports on Sunday had it fully capturing Ternova, but the latest word is that Russia is “continuing to expel the enemy” from Ternova. Which translates to: Ukraine has Ternova.
Maybe the most interesting thing in Russian reports is that they mention fighting on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets River at Rubizhne. That seems to confirm Ukraine’s continued presence on the east bank, and at a spot well to the north of anything previously known. Russia is also bragging about how they have mined every possible way into Rubizhne, something that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was complaining about earlier in the week.
The latest satellite images show that the former bridge at Rubizhne is still unrepaired, but there has been too much cloud cover in the area over the last two weeks to determine if Ukraine has erected a pontoon bridge in the area. In any case, artillery fire near the bridge landing on both sides of the river continues to be heavy. On Tuesday, there was also a burst of artillery fire well over to the east, which could signal Ukrainian forces that had been near Buhaivka making a move.
The big news at Izyum is not good. Russia has apparently taken Svyatohirske, one of the last Ukrainian-held towns on the north bank of the river east of Izyum. But at the same time, Russia may have managed to get forces across the river to the village of Tetyanivka.
Images late on Monday, as Ukrainian forces were still fighting in Svyatohirske, showed that the single bridge leading across the river at that point was heavily damaged, but not actually down. It’s possible that bridge isn’t capable of allowing heavy equipment across, but is still sturdy enough for infantry and lighter transports. Descriptions of the force reportedly in Tetyanivka would support that idea.
Ukraine has been counting on river crossing to give them a chance to inflict more disasters on Russia. They not only have get across almost 100m of water, but climb steep banks to get away from the bridgehead, while Ukraine looks down from the heights. If Russia has what amounts to a freebie in getting across the river, that’s a Not Good Thing.
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