Ukraine update: The idea that Ukraine has no choice but to take Kherson in a ‘great battle’ is wrong

Ukraine update: The idea that Ukraine has no choice but to take Kherson in a ‘great battle’ is wrong

It may be the oldest story in warfare. It’s certainly among the oldest that anyone ever bothered to record in songs, poems, or prose. Someone holds control over a city. Someone else wants it. Now what?

For a few days last week, hope was so thick you could practically walk on it. When word came of evacuations in Kherson, it really did look as if Russia meant to not just move out its officials and quislings, but its military. There were videos of ferries shuttling military units to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, both at Kherson and Nova Kakhovka. There were official statements from the Ukrainian ministry of defense citing abandoned Russian positions near the front line. There were statements from Russian military bloggers, including the Telegram channel associated with the Wagner mercenary group, whining about how Russia was leaving Kherson without a fight. 

It really did seem as if the only question was whether Ukraine should just wait until the last Russian climbed onto a boat, or whether they should swoop in early to capture a bounty of equipment lined up at the docks. That didn’t happen.

Instead, the conventional wisdom has flipped 180 degrees in less than a week. Rather than waving bye to Russians retreating across the Dnipro, everyone—from Ukrainian officials to television analysts—are now expecting Ukraine and Russia to face off for The Mother of All Battles III: Kherson Showdown. The number of articles in the last few days saying that Ukraine will face a “tough fight” in Kherson likely exceeds Russian casualties in the war. This Newsweek article is typical, with the inclusion of this stomach-dropping quote:

“The Russians are going to leave behind nothing but dust,” one former resident predicted. “The only question I have is whether it will be worse than Mariupol, or only as bad as Mariupol.”

The article points out that Russia is fortifying the city, filling it with “fresh-faced” recently mobilized troops, and backing it with ranks of artillery located over on the eastern bank, where they don’t face the supply issues that are currently making guns go near-silent along the Kherson front lines. Once Ukraine begins fighting in Kherson, the theory goes, Russia will artillery the city to rubble — Russian troops and all—giving Ukraine an, at best, pyrrhic victory; turning all those incompetent, untrained Russian soldiers into ‘great martyrs’; and leaving behind a ruin that’s more of a burden than a prize.

But Ukraine doesn’t have to follow Russia’s plan. There are other ways to take a city, and when it comes to legendary victories, it’s those other ways, not hammering through defenses, that have earned a place in history.

One of those is simply an extension of what Ukraine has already been doing: siege warfare. Battles conducted by siege are so old that they’re a major theme in the epic of Gilgamesh. And even then, they were clearly something that had been around so long they had already grown both conventions and countermeasures. For Ukraine, sieging the city of Kherson means doing more of what they’ve already done: Restrict Russia’s ability to supply its forces on the west side of the Dnipro, engage at a level that tests those locations and keeps Russia expending ammunition, and take territory when it’s clear that Russia has either fallen back or can no longer defend a location. As for the artillery that Russia has reportedly put in place across the river, emplaced artillery is practically the definition of dead artillery on a modern battlefield, even without HIMARS. If Ukraine doesn’t have a good idea of how to deal with massed artillery at this point, this whole war effort is in trouble.

It’s not a strategy that makes people who want to daily update their maps with newly liberated villages (ahem) all that excited, but it’s a strategy that minimizes both Ukrainian losses and damage to civilian infrastructure. No one says Ukraine has to capture Kherson this week, or this month. Just keep up the squeeze and let it come when it comes.

And, of course, there’s the other way to take a city; the way we really remember. What way is that? It’s a wooden horse filled with silent soldiers. It’s forces discovering that a flood—or a drought—has opened the way to an area that defenders haven’t bothered to protect. It’s those bastards who sneak into one end of the city while everyone is celebrating at the other end. It’s doing something clever and new that doesn’t fit the script for how everyone knows this is going to go down.

Ukraine is going to liberate Kherson. Liberating Kherson that still looks like Kherson, and doing it without losing unnecessary numbers of Ukrainian troops is the challenge. 

But hey … how nice is it that all anyone is talking about is just the details of how Russia is going to lose?

When it comes to what’s going on in the northeast right now, there are reports of battles all up and down the line from near Kupyansk to just north of Kreminna.

Svatove Area. Open in another tab for a closer look.

Going from south to north, the first of these fights (it’s unclear if it’s a skirmish or a battle) is taking place north of Kreminna, with Ukrainian forces pushing toward the P66 highway in the area of Zhytlivka. Many analysts are now predicting that the capture of this area, the isolation of Kreminna, and the restriction of Russian troop movements along the highway are critical for taking Svatove and points east. Russia seems to understand this as well. That’s why both sides have reportedly been pushing more troops into this area, and why Russia has tried to push west to disrupt Ukrainian plans.

Now that Ukraine seems to hold all the towns along that smaller road to the west, it’s been moving to find the right point to hit Russian locations to the east. Zhytlivka may be that place. However, there’s an issue beyond just Russian forces in the area, and it’s one that you’ll hear again today: Mud. It’s been raining, and there are no good, well-paved highways shooting over to the east at this location. There’s a nice valley through the hills, which would work great in dry weather, but it’s not dry weather, and it won’t be for a while. So things are moving at the speed of slog. Some Ukrainian vehicles reportedly got mired trying to make this trek on Wednesday and had to be dragged back.

As might be expected, fights are going on right there in the Svatove area. In the last few days, fighting has reportedly moved east of the village of Nezhuryne, which puts Ukrainian forces very close to the highway intersection overlooking Svatove. However, the area is reportedly backed by three rings of Russian forces. It seems amazing that Ukrainian forces should get this close just plunging in from the west, rather than attempting to encircle Svatove. If they can press just one or two kilometers from the current position, they might not need anything else to break up the Russian hub.

Ukrainian forces have also reportedly been engaged in fighting further north. After largely ignoring the area northeast of the highway from Kupyansk, that’s changed in the last couple of days. But at both the reported locations, Ukraine is again facing the issue of trying to make progress on poor road conditions and in driving rain.

Military channels on Telegram are already warning that the weather conditions today are bad enough that no one should be expecting any rapid movements. But then, this could be exactly the kind of day when someone gets surprised. Maybe it won’t be a wooden horse. Maybe it will be some well-armed ducks.

The company Ukrspec Systems showed a new reconnaissance drone Shark, which is used to correct fire, including HIMARS systems. pic.twitter.com/h5XJMsmC1g

— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) October 27, 2022

Ukraine hit two fuel depots at the same time in the occupied city of Shakhtarsk. The flames have been spectacular. In addition to damaging the tanks and the loss of fuel, at least one of these strikes also damaged a number of train cars and rail tracks through the city.

This time, indeed, the silos of Shakhtarsk have been eliminated. #Shakhtarsk #Donetsk #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/VCz7l9swe1

— (((Tendar))) (@Tendar) October 27, 2022

Well, this is horrific. The reduction of Soledar using thermobaric weapons. These things are rat bastards.

Soledar. pic.twitter.com/NzyYZgeZyP

— Andrew Perpetua (@AndrewPerpetua) October 27, 2022

UPDATE: Thursday, Oct 27, 2022 · 9:04:34 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

russians fail in everything they do in 🇺🇦, including their attacks on energy infrastructure. With each russian strike, 🇺🇦 only become stronger. Where russians expect to find weakness, instead they find strength and resilience. Art by @IamSashko based on photo by @Reuters pic.twitter.com/ybbC4AXVxf

— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) October 27, 2022

UPDATE: Thursday, Oct 27, 2022 · 8:32:25 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

Here are some of those M30A1 shells in action in Kherson.

They are complaining that Ukraine is firing M30A1 rockets at them in Kherson. pic.twitter.com/7fKMTzuMhM

— Andrew Perpetua (@AndrewPerpetua) October 27, 2022

UPDATE: Thursday, Oct 27, 2022 · 8:14:50 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

Moving up by Kupyansk to take a close up look at goings on in the neighborhood. For the first two weeks after Ukrainian forces completed liberating the east bank of the Oskil River, and as forces started moving toward Svatove from the west and south, there didn’t seem to be much concern about cleaning up the map around Kupyansk. That appears to have changed in the last few days.

Ukraine has liberated additional villages in northeastern Kharkiv oblast, confirmed the liberation of some towns and locations close to Kupyansk, and is now apparently moving east of the PO7 highway.

Kupyansk area. Open in another tab for a closer look.

Exactly why Ukraine is moving this way at the moment isn’t quite clear. This is  a mostly dirt-road region, not particularly on the way to anywhere, and it’s definitely mud season. Maybe Russia is using them to base artillery to contest the highway, but it’s hard to see how Russia could do much to supply these locations, either.

Fighting is currently reported near Pershotravneve (though darned if I can spot how you get there from here) and near Orlyanske. That second location could mean that Ukraine has already liberated two villages near Kyslivka. Unless they cut cross country. But this could be an area where Ukraine picks up some additional ground over the next few days. It would be nice to clear up that last corner of Kharkiv Oblast, and if they keep going long enough, they do hit a paved road going south.

UPDATE: Thursday, Oct 27, 2022 · 7:26:29 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

⚡️Zelensky: Russia’s alleged plans to retreat from Kherson are disinformation. President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Russian troops “are not ready” to withdraw from Kherson.

— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) October 27, 2022

How should we be reading the 2022 polls, in light of shifting margins and past misses? In this episode of The Downballot, Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen joins us to explain how his firm weights polls to reflect the likely electorate; why Democratic leads in most surveys this year should be treated as smaller than they appear because undecided voters lean heavily anti-Biden; and the surprisingly potent impact abortion has had on moving the needle with voters despite our deep polarization.

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