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After Kherson, the Ukrainian army is considering a new push to the south and east


A Ukrainian soldier at the entrance to a bunker at a military position in the Zaporizhzhia region on November 30.  (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post).
A Ukrainian soldier at the entrance to a bunker at a military position in the Zaporizhzhia region on November 30. (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post).

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ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine – The path to a Ukrainian victory – or at least the most obvious path – will likely cut south through the muddy, flat fields of the Zaporizhzhia region.

Following Russia’s withdrawal from the city of Kherson – the only regional capital Moscow has captured since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion began – Ukrainian forces have limited options for their next big push to continue retaking territory. occupied and, ultimately, to expel the invaders.

Much of the focus is now here, on the southern front line less than 100 miles north of the Sea of ​​Azov, where the Ukrainians are eager to cut the ‘land bridge’ linking mainland Russia to the Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014. Kyiv is also determined to liberate cities such as Melitopol and Enerhodar, where the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located.

Russian forces, in turn, are digging into more fortified defensive positions, clearly anticipating a fight.

“Everyone is talking about Zaporizhzhia. Everyone,” said Konrad Muzyka, president of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based military analytics firm.


Territory recovered by Ukraine through counter-offensives

Ukrainian soldiers reported that

they are responsible for protecting Highway 15.

Nuclear plant

in Enerhodar

Russia controls this

road that creates a

“land bridge” to Crimea.

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Completed in 2018, the

Crimean Bridge was the only link

Russia owed Crimea. An explosion

damaged the bridge on 8 October.

Zones of control as of December 2

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI Critical Threats Project

After Kherson, the Ukrainian army is considering a new push to the south and east

Territory recovered by Ukraine

by counter-offensives

Ukrainian soldiers said

they were in charge of

protect Highway 15.

Russia controls this

road that creates a

“land bridge” to Crimea.

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Completed in 2018,

the Crimean Bridge

was the only link

Russia owed Crimea.

An explosion damaged

the bridge on October 8.

Zones of control as of December 1

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI Critical Threats Project

After Kherson, the Ukrainian army is considering a new push to the south and east

Territory recovered by Ukraine

by counter-offensives

Ukrainian soldiers said

they were in charge of

protect Highway 15.

Russian control of

this road creates

a “land bridge”

to Crimea.

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Completed in 2018,

the Crimean Bridge

was the only link

Russia owed Crimea.

An explosion damaged

the bridge on October 8.

Zones of control as of December 1

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

But despite all the logical speculation, the roads and military positions near the frontline show little evidence of a troop buildup, and there is no indication that the Ukrainians are looking to mount an offensive in the Zaporizhzhia region anytime soon. , Muzyka and other analysts said. .

Victor Dadak, 35, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Battalion, did not say whether the country’s forces would launch their next major offensive here. “It’s a military secret,” Dadak said. “But I think in a few days the military secret will be revealed.”

Last summer, rumors swirled for weeks about an impending Ukrainian counter-offensive in the southern Kherson region. Instead, there was a surprise and lightning push in the northeast region of Kharkiv.

For now, Ukrainian soldiers in the Zaporizhzhia region appear to be in a bit of a standby mode – waiting, in muddy conditions, for the ground to freeze.

It was the coldest day for the Ukrainian soldiers stationed here, and on the first day Dadak noticed the ground starting to harden, he said. But the ground was still slippery enough for military vehicles to slip and get stuck. Dadak said he hopes in the next two weeks their vehicles will gain traction.

About a mile from the front line, Dadak marched across a field towards a group of soldiers taking cover in the only place they could – a thin row of leafless trees that were doing little. to block the biting wind. The bright sun was deceiving; temperatures had dropped near freezing. The soldiers took turns warming themselves in a canoe with a wood-burning stove and just enough room for two small beds.

Their main objective was to maintain a defensive position, just behind the front line, and to prevent the Russians from advancing north to the highway that connects Zaporizhzhia with the Donetsk region.

But the long-term goal, Dadak said, was to push south to the Sea of ​​Azov. With the right momentum, Ukrainian forces could surround the troops now on the east bank of the Dnieper after surrendering the city of Kherson and the towns on the west bank.

About 30,000 Russian troops are on the east bank of the river in the Kherson region, according to rough intelligence estimates, Dadak said.

But the immediate challenges are fierce. The ground is even muddier than in the Kherson region, Dadak said. And, having abandoned the city of Kherson, Russia redistributed its troops to the east, strengthening its presence in Zaporizhzhia. The shelling has since intensified, Dadak and his soldiers said.

The density of Russian forces has increased, Muzyka said, meaning she has more troops per square mile than she had at the start of the war. “So if the Ukrainians attack, it won’t be easy,” Muzyka said.

While the relatively flat terrain and lack of rivers in the Zaporizhzhia region will make it easier for Ukraine to push south here, it will also give troops fewer places to hide.

“I think the Ukrainians are probably considering a few areas where they can potentially mount a counterattack,” Muzyka said. “Zaporizhzhia is the most obvious, which probably means it might not happen there.”

One of the Ukrainian military’s long-term goals appears to be an offensive that cuts south to occupied Melitopol, said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a research group based in Virginia.

The Russian military has been preparing for a Ukrainian offensive in Zaporizhzhia since the summer, Kofman said. The Ukrainians, however, carried out offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, west of the Dnieper.

“Whether they can do it a little later in the winter or next spring is still a question,” Kofman said.

Ukraine has sought to stabilize the line in the battered town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, and a second group of forces is trying to push back the Russian army in the Luhansk region.

The question is whether Ukrainian forces have the troops and artillery ammunition available to launch an offensive in the south in the coming months, especially after suffering combat losses in Kherson.

The Ukrainian towns closest to the front line look almost abandoned for most of the day, with residents only emerging from their bunkers in the morning when Russian shelling briefly stops. In the town of Huliaipole, famous for being the birthplace of Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno, a missile strike on the town hall about a month and a half ago killed the town’s deputy mayor and the one of his collaborators. Another recent strike destroyed a major public library, leaving a mountain of rubble.

A few steps away, sandbags surrounded a statue of Makhno, protecting it from the onslaught of shelling.

Dadak saw the Russians using more helicopters here than before, he said. A neighboring unit recently acquired rockets for the sole purpose of shooting down Russian helicopters.

Nearby mortar and artillery explosions have become more frequent, said a group of four Ukrainian soldiers based about a mile behind the front line, whom The Post agreed to identify only by their first names because of the risks of security.

“This is our situation, day and night,” said one soldier, Volodymyr, who planned to go to the front line on Thursday, his 47th birthday. The shelling has gotten worse since Kherson was liberated, he said, smoking a cigarette in a dark, cramped bunker.

With the temperatures dropping, Volodymyr said he was not worried about winter. The military had prepared the soldiers with lots of warm gear, he said. “The most important thing is to have a cold, not muddy winter,” he said.

Perhaps then, the soldiers said, they could see movement.

“The momentum in Kherson has lifted our spirits and I hope we can do something like that here too,” said another soldier, Ihor, 36.

But Serhii, 26, said he had no idea if that would happen in the coming weeks.

“We could be here all winter,” Serhii said.

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