Nearly 80 years ago, the Red Army suffered massive losses when it drove the German Wehrmacht back across the Dnieper River in what was then Soviet Ukraine. After the defeat at Stalingrad in early February 1943, Nazi Germany and its Romanian allies initially held on to the Panther-Wotan defense line, but by November the Soviets had succeeded in establishing themselves along a 450-kilometer stretch west of the river. About 1.2 million Soviet soldiers were killed or wounded during months of fighting.
Those experiences may play a role in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s daily video messages. The invading army is often referred to as “Russian fascists”. After weeks of preparation, Zelenskyy has stepped up the counter-offensive in southern Ukraine to retake the area around the city of Kherson from the Russian occupiers. He says a million troops have gathered, although this cannot be independently verified. The Russian army had up to 150,000 soldiers stationed in the region when it invaded Ukraine on February 24.
The fighting in Ukraine during the Second World War was particularly fierce
Great turning point
The battle along the Dnieper River, which is more than 1 kilometer wide in parts of southern Ukraine, marked a major turning point 80 years ago – and the outcome of the current battle could be equally decisive. Russian soldiers have held Kherson, which has a population of 300,000, since shortly after the invasion began.
Michael Kofman, research director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyzes in the US state of Virginia, said a successful counter-offensive at this point could thwart further Russian offensives toward the port of Odessa.
With targeted attacks using the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), the Ukrainian military is trying to chart a strategic course. If the counter-offensive succeeds, Ukraine will be able to claim a victory as important as it was when it drove the Russian army from the northeastern city of Kharkov, which is home to more than 1 million people. But if the Russian forces hold out, it would be a major blow to Ukraine and even cost the country a lot of international support.
Whatever happens, the government in Kiev has the people of Kherson on its side. After the invasion in February, many residents took to the streets every day to protest – shouting that the city is Ukrainian and telling Russian occupiers to go home.
Counteroffensive gains momentum
By the end of July, the Ukrainian army could have caused serious damage to three key bridges in the region, which were important for supplying Russia’s 49th Army. A HIMARS attack on the Antonivka Road Bridge at night on July 26 was apparently decisive. The structure was reportedly so damaged that heavy equipment can no longer cross it.
While reports from the warring factions are difficult to independently verify, videos posted to social networks after the attack showed that Russia had set up a ferry service. It would also have been easy for Ukraine to hit this target.
The Ukrainian army has damaged three important bridges used to supply Russian troops
“Ukraine’s counter-offensive in Kherson is gaining momentum,” the British Ministry of Defense announced in an intelligence update noting that Russia’s 49th Army looked “highly vulnerable”. According to the ministry, the city is “virtually cut off from the other occupied territories”. Kherson’s loss “would seriously undermine Russia’s attempts to portray the occupation as a success,” the ministry said.
Other videos on social media showed Russia apparently deploying heavy equipment toward Kherson in response.
In Kiev, Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak seems confident. He told TBEN that just as Russia had left Black Sea Snake Island, from which the sea route to the Bosphorus could be controlled, it could leave Kherson as a “goodwill gesture.”
But the Russian military is also capable of targeted attacks in southern Ukraine, as Simon Ostrovsky, a correspondent for US broadcaster PBS, reported after a recent visit. He said several secret bases, warehouses and stock dumps used by the Ukrainian army in the city of Mykolaiv have been hit. “Russia’s own barrage of rocket attacks on Ukraine appears well-targeted and highly damaging — not just to civilians, but to [Ukraine’s] war effort,” Ostrovsky said.
Kofman said it was difficult to predict what would happen. “I believe Ukraine probably has a chance right now,” he said. “They feel they have a chance.” And, he added: “I think Ukraine certainly has the potential to conduct a successful offensive. But he also said Ukraine could lose the advantage if it didn’t use the “surprise element”.
The Kherson region is not only of great strategic importance: it is also of crucial economic importance. Wheat is grown here for the world market and sunflower oil is produced. Ukraine accuses Russia of stealing half a million tons of grain, fertilizer and tens of thousands of tons of sunflower oil. With the help of GPS trackers, Kiev was able to prove that Russian troops had also stolen high-quality agricultural equipment from the area.
If Ukraine fails to regain control of the fertile region, it will struggle to survive. It must drive Russia out of Kherson, across the Dnieper River and eastwards, to cut its land link with Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014 in violation of international law.
In his video messages, President Zelenskyy says the turning point the Ukrainians have been waiting for has arrived – and he calls for heavy weapons from the US and the EU.
Anna Fil contributed to this article.
This article was originally written in German.