Here in the muddy coastal region of Khersonwhich sits like a wrinkled hat on the peninsula of crimea occupied by Russiasoldiers prepare for what may become the biggest battle of the president’s war Vladimir Putin in Ukraineand perhaps the best single test of whether Moscow he ends up gaining any significant territory from his invasion or is forced to retreat empty-handed.
Ukrainian authorities have signaled that an assault on the city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russia has managed to capture since its invasion began on February 24, could be imminent. President Volodymyr Zelensky he told Ukrainians to “expect good news” from the region, and another senior official recently said he hopes to retake the city by the end of the year.
Russia, however, has shown no indication that it is willing to cede the city, or the wider Kherson region, which is of enormous strategic and political importance to the kremlin.
The Ukrainian military said last week that Russia had moved an additional 1,000 troops to the area around the city of Kherson, which had a prewar population of about 300,000.
A few days ago, here in the region, a Ukrainian rocket team worked fast, with a mud-splattered truck, racing to the edge of a disputed town to place a drone reconnaissance and another straggler to target.
With a vibrating whistle, three grad rockets of the era soviet they smashed the rear of the vehicle and headed for the sky.
The target was a Russian vehicle repair depot near the city of Dudchany. It was difficult to determine the damage caused by last week’s attack, the second in three days.
Ukrainian soldiers, from a volunteer unit called carlsonThey had been in the area for a few weeks. What they had hoped would be a swift march to the occupied city of Kherson has been delayed by Russian fortifications and another adversary: fierce autumn mud.
“The Russians have very good and well-prepared positions in this area, so it’s difficult to expel them,” said Karlson’s commander, who goes by the name Playboy. “For now, they stay put.”
“Even if you shoot accurately with the artillery, you might kill some Russian soldiers, but others just go back to these positions,” Playboy said. “To advance we need many tanks, [vehículos blindados de transporte de personal] and human resources”.
Amid signs in late summer that Ukraine was planning a major counteroffensive in Kherson, Russia moved military units south, contributing to the rapid success of another Ukrainian offensive in the Kherson region. Kharkiv in the northeast. But Ukraine’s advance south has been slow and there have been heavy casualties.
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Efforts to liberate the cities of Kherson have slowed further in recent days as autumn rains have already muddied the ground. And the Russian defenses don’t seem to be collapsing like they did when the Ukrainian forces roared through. Kharkiv in September.
The Kherson region forms the last crucial component of the “land bridge” between mainland Russia and Crimea that Putin has coveted since Moscow invaded the peninsula and illegally annexed it in 2014. And the inability to reach Crimea by road was one of the main reasons Putin spent $4 billion to build the crimean bridge through the Kerch Strait.
In February, when Putin ordered a full-scale invasion, Russian forces in Crimea flowed into southern Ukraine through Kherson.
Now the city remains Moscow’s only major foothold on the western side of the Dnieper river. If it falls, Ukrainian forces could move on, potentially encircling Russian forces.
In early October, Ukrainian troops were advancing on the city of Kherson from the north and west. Russian-installed officials say they have moved up to 70,000 civilians and administrative offices to the east side of the Dnieper ahead of an expected Ukrainian attack.
But instead of abandoning the city, the Russians seem to be fortifying their positions and preparing for the big battle to come, though whether it will come before or after the winter is anyone’s guess.
As the confrontation looms, conditions in the city of Kherson continue to deteriorate. People who have fled the capital say lines of communication have all but been cut. Even the SIM cards The Russians that many Kherson residents began using on their cell phones after the Russians invaded in early March often no longer work.
“It was not possible to survive under the conditions of the occupation,” he said. Tetiana Kartanovych51, a teacher who fled the city of Kherson a month ago and is now in Kyiv.
Initially, the occupation was ordered, he said. Kartanovych. There were few checkpoints and the Russian soldiers were reasonably professional. But over time, the Russians began to “terrorize” people, rummaging through their cars and forcing men, children and sometimes women to strip naked so they could be checked for tattoos suggesting sympathy with the Ukrainian military.
Soon, Kartanovych began to see soldiers pulling people off public transportation and taking them away, he said.
Her husband and 17-year-old twin sons crossed to the east side of the river hoping there would be less harassment, she said.
Instead, the Russians broke into the house where they were staying and forced everyone to the ground at gunpoint. They beat her husband until her ribs were broken and put a gun to the head of one of the twins while they searched the house, Kartanovych said. Her husband was detained for two days before being released. Her story, which could not be quickly and independently verified, lines up with reports from the city of Kherson and other places under Russian occupation.
Kartanovych said that he now worries about his elderly mother, who was left behind. Communication is difficult and water and electricity services are intermittent, he said. Some people have money on bank cards but cannot use them, while cash is almost impossible to find.
Zelensky has promised to liberate Kherson and then move on to Crimea, a Red line for Putin, who has repeatedly warned against any military action to retake the peninsula.
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Also located in Kherson is a crucial Soviet-era canal, which for a long time provided a vital supply of sweet water to Crimea. Ukraine blocked it in 2014, costing Moscow hundreds of millions of dollars. One of Russia’s first moves after the invasion began in February was to seize the canal and renew its water flows.
The Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant have become a key talking point in recent weeks, and Zelensky claims that “Russian terrorists” plan to destroy it. Russian officials have accused Ukraine of conspiring to do the same, but neither side has provided evidence.
Whatever lies ahead in Kherson, it will probably take a while to unfold.
The front line hasn’t moved much in the last three weeks, according to half a dozen soldiers from carlson. The volunteer unit began in the early days of the war as an aerial reconnaissance team that used various types of drones to identify targets for other Ukrainian forces to attack. It is named after a Swedish cartoon character popular in Ukraine who has a propeller on his back.
“The cartoon character is a perfect fit for our work,” Playboy said, pointing to his Karlson patch. He and many men in the unit were friends in the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine, before the war. None had military experience. Playboy produced fertilizer. Another ran a sports nutrition business. One was a professional martial arts fighter.
With a combination of debt and donations, Karlson gradually amassed his own small arsenal, including three trucks capable of firing Grads. Russian soldiers had left Soviet-era rockets behind during a retreat, Playboy said.
Playboy and a pilot drones named John came to Dudchany to monitor the damage caused by rocketswhich could be aimed before launch but could not be guided in mid-flight.
A tall soldier with a nicknamed fisherman’s hat Borsuk he stayed behind to launch the Grads from the back of another truck, which quickly turned around before retreating to avoid a retaliatory attack. His haste was another sign of Russia’s capabilities in this region.
“We’re leaving in seconds,” Playboy said. “It is the most important thing because in this area, the Russians have a radar. They will quickly know the position [desde la cual] we’re shooting.”
The 60-person unit had suffered three casualties: a friend of Playboy’s was killed in an artillery attack this summer and two others were seriously injured by an anti-tank mine when Ukrainian forces entered the area in early October.
Heavy rains have made it difficult for large vehicles such as armored vehicles and tanks to move, he said. Even their four-wheel drive trucks were covered in mud. But the men said they believed a move to recapture the city of Kherson before winter was more likely than not.
“When it’s drier,” Playboy said, “I think we’ll move.”