Ukraine, Russia Present Competing Narratives as Long-Awaited Kherson Counteroffensive Begins

Dimitri Simes | August 30, 2022 | 5:34pm EDT
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Smoke rises at the front line in the fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces as a major counteroffensive gets underway in a bit to retake Kherson city and the surrounding region. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)
Smoke rises at the front line in the fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces as a major counteroffensive gets underway in a bit to retake Kherson city and the surrounding region. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Following months of preparation, Ukraine has launched a major counteroffensive aimed at pushing Russian troops out of the southern region of Kherson.

Heavy fighting was reported in several villages along the frontline in Kherson on Monday and Tuesday, as Ukrainian forces sought to recapture territory lost during the early days of the conflict.

Videos and images posted on social media appeared to show numerous explosions in different parts of Kherson, caused by Ukrainian missile and artillery strikes.

The two sides have presented radically differing narratives about the progress of the counteroffensive. Ukrainian officials claim their forces have broken through Russia’s first line of defense in Kherson and blown up several important military and infrastructure targets. The Russian Defense Ministry asserts that the Ukrainian military lost more than a thousand troops and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles in a “failed” attack. was unable to independently verify either side’s claims.

Ukrainian officials have publicly spoken of an intention to launch a counteroffensive in Kherson for months.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has conducted numerous artillery and missile strikes deep behind Russian lines with the help of newly-acquired Western weapons, most notably the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). The bombardments have been accompanied by a series of assassinations of local pro-Russian politicians.

The Ukrainian military has also sought to recruit and train new troops for the counteroffensive, with Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov declaring last month that he was working on raising a million-man army.

Russian forces have also spent the past few months preparing for a new battle over Kherson.

Russian soldiers have reportedly been fortifying defensive positions in the region by digging trenches, building tank shelters, and setting up concrete block posts. Russia has also reportedly moved thousands of reinforcements into Kherson from other parts of the front.

Kherson is important for both sides, for symbolic and strategic reasons. In early March, it became the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian troops, providing Russia with a bridgehead for any future offensives along Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline.

Control of Kherson also allowed Russia to restore fresh water supplies to Crimea, which were cut off by Ukraine after Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014.

During a visit to Kherson in May, a senior Russian lawmaker declared that Russia would remain in the region “forever.”

Over recent months, the Kremlin moved to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia with the Russian ruble as the main currency in the region and began handing out Russian passports to local residents. Pro-Russian politicians there have signaled plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia later this year.

Olesksiy Arestovych, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a YouTube interview on Monday evening the Kherson counteroffensive was a “planned slow operation to grind down the enemy.”

“This process will not be very fast, but will end with the installation of the Ukrainian flag over all the settlements of Ukraine,” he said.

Some defense analysts have sounded a cautious note about the likelihood of the counteroffensive succeeding.

Retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Defense Priorities, argued in an article for the 1945 website that Ukrainian forces faced two major obstacles in their bid to recapture Kherson.

The first was geographic, since Ukrainian troops would have to advance through nearly 20 miles of open steppe before reaching the city of Kherson. Such terrain would provide them with little cover against potential Russian artillery and air strikes, he wrote.

Even if Ukrainian forces succeeded in retaking the city, moving into the rest of the region would require them to cross the Dnipro river, whose bridges have been badly damaged by fighting in recent months, Davis noted.

Secondly, the Ukrainian military doesn’t yet have the clear superiority in troop strength, air power, and especially artillery needed to conduct a major counter-offensive, he said.

“Artillery has been near-decisive for the victors in World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, Vietnam, and is having an outsized impact in the Russian-Ukrainian War of 2022,” Davis wrote.

“Historically speaking, it is nearly impossible for an attacking force to defeat a defending force if the attackers are inferior in field artillery.”

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