- Ukrainian troops close in on Russian-held Kherson
- Taking the city back would be a major victory in the war
- Kherson, the gateway to Crimea, was annexed in 2014
- Soldiers in the trenches foresee a fierce battle
Front west of Kherson, Ukraine, Nov 4 (Reuters) – Ole, commander of Ukraine’s mechanized infantry unit, digs in trenches west of Kherson, believing his Russian enemy will suffer from winter weather, logistical impasse and Threat of siege.
But neither he nor his men thought the Russians would go quickly or quietly, nor did he intend to let them go.
His remarks raised fears of a bloody fight in the coming weeks for control of the main city on the west bank of the Dnieper, the gateway to the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
“They’re going to keep fighting. They’re going to defend their positions as long as they can,” said Ole, 26, a battle-hardened major who has been in the army since enlisting as a teenager 10 years ago. The team keeps improving. “It’s going to be an uphill battle.”
Kirill Stremusov, the deputy head of the Russian government set up in the Kherson region, said on Thursday he hoped Russian troops would be able to fight.
“If we leave Kherson, it will be a huge blow,” he added in comments broadcast on Russia’s RT television.
The scramble for the only provincial capital Moscow occupied in a full-scale invasion started on February 1. The 24th may be the most important in this war so far.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it will be another setback after a series of major battlefield losses since mid-August.
Military experts say that with control of the western bank of the Dnieper, the Ukrainian army will have a springboard from which to seize the bridgehead on the eastern side and march towards Crimea.
Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and Kyiv has made restoring the peninsula its sworn goal.
It would also be a political disgrace for Putin if Kherson falls in the counteroffensive, experts added, as Kherson, one of four partially occupied areas of Ukraine, has declared it will be “forever” Russia’s part. September 30.
“It’s going to be a huge blow, mostly politically,” said Philip Ingram, a retired senior British military intelligence officer. “It will cost him (Putin) militarily. If the Ukrainians can get a bridgehead on the east side of the Dnieper, it will be worse for the Russians.”
The Ukrainians “will be able to strike at the Russians who are defending the Crimean passage,” said former U.S. military commander and retired U.S. general Ben Hodges.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russians appeared to have begun an “organized, phased withdrawal” from the west bank of the Dnieper.
eager to attack
Thousands of civilians in and around the city have been evacuated east of the Dnieper in recent weeks after the Russian-appointed occupation authority warned of the dangers posed by the Ukrainian advance.
On Friday, Putin publicly supported what Kyiv said would be an evacuation that would include the forcible expulsion of civilians from Russian-occupied territory — a war crime — which Russia denies.
Occupation authorities have also moved administrative offices and records to the east bank, and a Western source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most Russian commanders also moved their bases.
U.S. officials and Ukrainian commanders say the Russians have been strengthening their fronts, including deploying recently mobilized reservists to better protect the withdrawal.
According to U.S. officials, some Ukrainian soldiers believe that well-trained Russian reservists are being sent to the front “like slaughtered lambs”, while more experienced troops are digging defenses farther back.
An orderly troop withdrawal could be challenging for the Russians, requiring coordination, deception to conceal movement, communications discipline, and heavy artillery fire to suppress Ukrainian advances.
But Ukrainian forces could also face serious obstacles that could hinder their takeover of Kherson, including booby-traps and concentrated Russian artillery and rocket fire from the east coast, Hodges said.
In an intermittent artillery duel on Friday, Ole’s 100-man force took advantage of the unusually mild weather to clean weapons and install floors in a bunker covered in dirt and logs, lined with insulation and furnished with Portable generator and wood burner stove.
The unit, which has six armoured personnel carriers, was inaugurated in September after the Ukrainian army drove Russian troops back to the border of Kherson and Nikolayev provinces.
Ole said time is running out for the Russians as ice floes will be brought to the Dnieper in January, which could hinder ferry operations.
He rushes to strike at the enemy’s weak point to cause panic among the reservists, which could turn into a rout.
“If we didn’t attack, they would have been sitting there,” he said. “People who are mobilized are good for us because they create panic. Panic is contagious like a disease. It spreads.”
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Daniel Wallis
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