GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – Kherson falls possibly a game changer

Yesterday, the city of Kherson fell to Russian forces, so we have to reassess the situation.  Kherson is an important element of any strategy to advance across the south of Ukraine and create a coastal, ‘Crimean Corridor’.  Kherson is city of about 300,000 people or approximately the same number as Wellington.  It is important because of its strategic position on the Dnieper River near the coast, it is a significant rail junction and has an airport with a 2500 metre runway able to support medium sized transport aircraft.

A key thread in this discussion relates to the logistics of military operations.  Any foot soldier needs to be supported by lots of other people who provide food, fuel, ammunition, medical care and other supplies.  That’s why cities are important for military planners, they have roads and large concreted areas that make moving and unloading large trucks easy. Cities have water, power and hospitals.  Buildings can be repurposed to house headquarters, provide accommodation for soldiers and storage for supplies.

By capturing Kherson the Russians now have an area that could provide a logistics base for an advance on Ukraine’s major city on the Black Sea coast, Odessa. Once, Kherson is secure it is likely that the Russians will establish a logistics hub there and start pushing towards Odessa.  The airport is easily large enough for Russian tactical transport aircraft and helicopters to use providing an airhead that could rapidly bring soldiers and supplies into the area.  

Will the capture of Kherson see a switch in Russia’s main effort?  

Kiev remains the political and cultural heart of Ukraine.  If it is in Russian hands, they can claim victory and install a puppet Ukrainian government.  However, as we have discussed Kiev is an increasingly hard nut to crack.  Yesterday, we discussed the dilemma that Putin faces as options for ‘victory’ slip away.  A change of focus to the south and capture of the ‘Crimean Corridor’ look like a good option.  Securing the Black Sea coast and creating a land corridor that links the Russia to Transnistria could provide a face saving ‘win’ even if Kiev is not captured.  

The question is can Russia, do it? Odessa is about a 150 kilometres from Kherson, about the distance between Auckland and Hamilton, and the advance needs to cross a number of major rivers.  However, the Russians still have a significant strategic reserve of airborne forces and their successful amphibious operations a week ago demonstrated the ability to land soldiers from the sea.  These types of forces could be used to leap frog along the coast capturing bridges ahead of advancing conventional forces. 

If the Russians have the resources, it seems logical that they will advance towards Odessa.  The city is of considerable cultural and historical significance and is a major Black Sea port.  But it will take time, first they need to secure Kherson, then rest and reconstitute their forces.  We will see activity pushing west and possibly north along the Dnieper from Kherson soon but I think we should plan on about a week before Odessa is decisively engaged. 

Pressure will be maintained on Kiev, there are reports that the Russian advance has slowed down or stopped. However, it is impossible to deduce much from this information other than Russia has air superiority in the local area. The advance could be slowing for many reasons.  Ukrainian attacks or because the Russians are setting the tempo, slowing the advance to consolidate their forces and prepare for a deliberate, well-planned attack.

Yesterday, I discussed the Royal United Services Institute’s assessment of the Ukrainian army’s offensive capabilities. The assessment said that the Ukrainian army had lost it ability to fight offensively.  However, in the last 24 hours there have been media reports of Ukrainian counter attacks and it is important to provide some context. The Ukrainian counter attacks are relatively small local attacks and do little to change the wider assessment and do not demonstrate a capability to defeat the Russians conventionally. 

The developing situation provides context for the second round of talks between Ukraine and Russia that started at about 3am this morning in New Zealand time.  The talks will be interesting and provide an insight into the Russian’s strategy.  If concessions are made it is likely that the Russians are looking for a face-saving negotiated solution, perhaps securing a Crimean Corridor, their withdrawal from the north followed by a truce. A peace that of course would be temporary while the Russians planned their next move.  

Or if the Russians take a hard line, it could mean either a longer and more bloody war or possibly a nuclear escalation.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, an urbane and experienced diplomat’s recent warning “that if a third world war were to occur, it would involve nuclear weapons and be destructive” is a disturbing, Lavrov is not known for his rhetoric.  Statements like this are used by Russia to deter NATO intervention, however these threats have much more weight coming from a man like Lavrov and could indicate a willingness to use nuclear forces. 

So at the end of D + 8 let’s look at our predictions:

 

  • Today, Kiev may no longer be the decisive point in the campaign. Russian main effort may start to switch to the south after the fall of Kherson.  It is too soon to tell and today’s negotiations will provide more information.  However, don’t expect a respite for Kiev it will continue to be menaced and bombards holding Ukrainian forces there that could be used elsewhere. 
  • Expect to see lots of activity around Kherson as the Russians probe outwards both to keep Ukrainian forces at bay while they reconstitute and secure the city and as they look for weaknesses that can be exploited by either advancing north towards Kiev or west towards Odessa. 
  • The battle of Kiev is progressing as expected, slowly and won’t advance significantly today while negotiations are under way.  
  • Russia’s nuclear rhetoric continues, risk exists that there may be a nuclear show of force.  Sergey Lavrov’s statement is important and will be interpreted carefully by NATO analysts.  
  • Continue to expect reports of more Russian troops being mobilised and moved to Ukraine. 

In summary, yesterday was an interesting day punctuated by the fall of Kherson and the start of a second round of negotiations.  While it is too early to assess the effect of the fall of Kherson on the wider campaign, it may provide the Russians with sensible non-nuclear options to ‘win’ the war. 

The question is do the Russians have the conventional combat power in the south to conduct a large offensive.  Initially, their advances in the south were quick and, in this area, they have more local support so they may have the ability to continue to menace Kiev while at the same time developing a new offensive in the south. Time will tell. 

 

Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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