Russians: It’s true, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson has begun

Source: Hot Air

A follow-up to this morning’s news about Ukrainian operations in the south starting at long last. This afternoon the Russian defense ministry confirmed those operations — they weren’t just a psy op — but claimed that they’ve gone terribly for the Ukrainians so far, of course.

For their own sake, I hope that’s true. Because if things go sideways for Russia in Kherson, the wider war could get hairy for them quickly.

The [Russian] defence ministry acknowledged on Monday that Ukraine had launched an attack on three fronts in Kherson and nearby Mykolayiv, but said it had inflicted “heavy casualties” on Kyiv’s forces.

“The latest attempt at offensive operations by Ukrainian forces completely backfired,” the ministry said. It claimed Ukraine had lost 560 servicemen, 26 tanks, 31 armoured vehicles, and two aircraft in the fighting.

In my earlier post I missed the fact that some of Zelensky’s top advisors had all but announced the start of the counteroffensive on social media today. Morale is high:

So far, the advance involves many conventional operations…

…and some less conventional:

Today is the day Ukraine settles all family business.

There was a report kicking around earlier that none other than Igor Girkin was reporting that the Ukrainians had succeeded at “surrounding and routing” Russian units east of the city of Kherson. Girkin was the top commander who led Russian separatists against Ukrainian forces in the Donbas in 2014; since then he’s become an ultranationalist critic of Putin’s new war, insisting that the Kremlin isn’t fighting tough enough or smart enough, yadda yadda, to grind the Ukrainian menace under Russia’s boot. (Why Putin lets Girkin get away with his harsh criticism is inscrutable to me.) Girkin’s alleged report of Ukrainians “routing” Russian forces is now disputed, with some claiming that it’s a poor translation from the original Russian. What Girkin said, it seems, is that the *goal* of Ukraine’s offensive east of Kherson is to surround and rout the Russians, not that they’ve managed to do so already.

But this Girkin post from a more reliable translation source is interesting in its own right. If he’s correct, there’s no way out for Russian troops inside the province:

Russian forces are trapped between the advancing Ukrainians and the Dnieper river, with no efficient means of retreating across the latter. U.S. sources are whispering to the media that Ukraine now has a “good chance” to retake meaningful territory:

Ukrainian forces have taken out “most” of the bridges crossing the Dnipro River using U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and other weapons, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation. The bridges serve as a crucial route to resupply Russian troops stationed to the west of the river, which are now at risk of being cut off from the rest of Moscow’s occupying forces…

The goal of this phase of the counteroffensive is to cut Russian forces off at the river and force them to surrender the city of Kherson, they said. At this point, crossing the river would be “very tough to do,” one of the officials said.

What happens if the Russians really do get routed in Kherson? Three things.

First, their Black Sea navy will be threatened:

They sank the Moskva, the flagship of the fleet, back in May before they had received any HIMARS systems from the U.S. Imagine what they could do now with HIMARS units stationed on the southern coast. And imagine how much more secure Ukraine’s economy will be if they no longer have to worry about a Russian blockade of grain exports.

Second, losing Kherson would be a devastating blow to Russian morale. It’s the Kremlin’s biggest success story of the war, taken in the early days without much of a fight. That’s how they expected the entire conflict would go. “In Kherson, Russia installed a puppet government, restricted the internet, mandated the use of the ruble and started issuing Russian passports,” Axios explain. “The White House has warned that Russia could announce a sham referendum there in the coming days as a precursor to annexing the territory into Russia.” Having the Ukrainians push Russia out of a province it’s been angling to “annex” would humiliate Putin like nothing else short of losing Crimea. And it would show Ukraine’s western allies like nothing else that the dream of chasing the Russians entirely out of the country is real.

Third, depending on how badly things go, the entire Russian force inside the country could be crippled. One Pentagon official who spoke to Politico said the Kremlin now faces a painful choice. They can at least try to pull troops out of Kherson and redeploy them to the east, to shore up defenses in the Donbas before Ukraine makes any moves there. Doing so would improve Putin’s chances of at least preserving the 2014 status quo when the war ends, maybe with some additional concessions from Zelensky. But if they give up on Kherson, we’re back to the humiliation scenario in the second point above. Having “Russified” the province, they can’t relinquish without a fight.

Yet if they go all-in there to try to beat back the counteroffensive and it goes badly for them, their army in the south will be broken while their army in the east will be left undermanned. What’s to stop the Ukrainians from pushing into the Donbas after Kherson is back in their control and overrunning the dregs of the Russian force there too? According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, Russia *has* moved units from other regions to the south to defend Kherson, gambling that they can hold the province: “They’ve had to deplete units from certain areas in the east and in the Donbas to respond to what they clearly believe was a looming threat of a counteroffensive.” If that gamble doesn’t pay off, Russia may be left to defend the Donbas with something of a skeleton force.

And at that point, who knows if the embarrassment of this debacle will finally become too much for the people around Putin.

That’s the best-best-best case scenario, of course, and therefore unduly optimistic. But on the day of the big counteroffensive, we’re entitled to a little optimism.