Observations of an Expat: Critical Kherson

Russia and Ukraine are locked in a battle for control of the strategic city of Kherson. It could be a turning point in the Ukraine War.

Kherson sits on the west bank of the Dnieper (also spelled Dnipro) River, 60 miles from the Black Sea. Russian forces have been in control of the city since 2 March, but now the troops are trapped by a Ukrainian counter offensive.

Using American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), the Ukrainians have destroyed virtually all the bridges connecting the roughly 1,000 Russian troops in the city to their main force on the eastern bank of the river. The city is now surrounded on three sides and the troops retreat route is blocked by quarter mile wide river on their fourth. They have been told by Ukrainian generals to either surrender, leave or be annihilated.

Meanwhile, there are reports of Moscow rushing forces across the Crimean bridge linking Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula and increased road and rail traffic from Crimea to the eastern bank of the Dnieper. Forces are also being transported to Ukraine from as far away as Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.  Putin is clearly preparing for a major battle.

This is unsurprising. Kherson is important to both sides politically and strategically. For a start it sits near the mouth of the Dnieper River with both a sea and river port and a major shipbuilding industry. The Dnieper is the fourth longest river in Europe and flows through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea near Kherson. The river is dotted with hydroelectricity plants and ship canals that enable major cargo vessels to travel 1,200 miles upriver to Kyiv and beyond. It is a vital part of the region’s history, culture and economy.

For the Russians, Kherson is also the gateway to the even more important port city of Odessa. And for the Ukrainians, its permanent loss would dash any hope of regaining Crimea to the south.

Unlike Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the majority of Kherson’s 250,000 residents (pre-war figure) are ethnic Ukrainians. It is a narrow majority,  53.4 percent compared to 45.3 percent for ethnic Russians, but in the 1991 independence referendum, 91 percent of the city’s population voted to breakaway from Russia.

By all accounts, Russia’s five-month occupation of the city has not been a happy one. Anti-Russian demonstrations have been brutally suppressed by Moscow successor to the KGB the FSB. Pro-Ukrainian politicians have been detained and two have been killed by car bombs. The puppet regime installed by Moscow has called for a referendum to annex Kherson to Russia. The vote, which has been tentatively scheduled for September, is likely to be successful because most of the ethnic Ukrainians have fled the city.

The battle for Kherson is also a major military challenge for both sides. It is an opportunity for the Ukrainian army to prove that it can mount a successful major counter offensive. It is an opportunity for President Volodomyr Zelensky and his military team to prove to America, Europe and the rest of the world that Ukraine has the martial skills to defeat the Russian military machine and that they are worth the economic sacrifices being made on their behalf.

Vladimir Putin has to prove that he can hold and successfully integrate captured territory. US intelligence reckons that so far 75,000 Russian soldiers have lost their lives in his “special military operation”.

But Russia has vast military resources. This week NATO’s Defense College issued a report ominously entitled “Russia’s Military: Down But Not Out.” The report argued that Moscow is still a long way from utilising its full military resources, including a general mobilisation and mass conscription. Putin said this week: “Russia has only just started.”


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Russian state TV talks about the benefits to Russia of adding the populations and economic resources of the Donbas and Southern Ukraine to the Russian Federation. There is apparently no plan to subsidise these areas in any way, but rather colonise them and make them pay for their own reconstruction and military occupation US warns Russia intends to ‘dissolve’ Ukraine from world map
    Kherson is perhaps the key to these plans. Control of the dam on the Dnieper at Kherson is critical to the freshwater supply to Crimea and the land bridge from the Russian mainland.
    Were the Ukrainian armed forces able to retake Kherson, their American supplied Himars and other artillery would be able to target Crimea and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol with longer range munitions.
    It is hard to see Russia allowing that to happen. When Putin says “Russia has only just started”, he may for once be telling the truth.
    The atrocities being reported from Ukraine increase by the day Kyiv vows to hunt down Russian troops who castrated Ukrainian soldier

  • Tom Seelye Arms 30th Jul '22 - 4:28pm

    @Joe Bourke– As usual, your comments are excellent additions. I can add that the dam also includes a road over the Dnieper. That is one of the few roads not being shelled because it would damage the dam and risk flooding Kherson. Also, that since March, the Kherson schools have been forced to teach the Russian educational curriculum and, of course, conduct classes in Russian only.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Jul '22 - 5:13pm

    Interesting article, as always, though I believe the 75,000 figure you quote refers to casualties (including wounded) rather than deaths. There has been no estimate given of Ukrainian losses which is probably due to them being even higher.

    Sadly, I don’t see any settlement being reached any time soon and think this war will grind on until Russia has taken all the territory it wants, reducing Ukraine to around half its pre-war size, at which point a Korean outcome may happen – a ceasefire rather than a peace agreement since Ukraine/the West will be unwilling to acknowledge the defeat. Until we reach that point, death destructive and misery on a huge scale. Very depressing.

  • Dan Hawkins 30th Jul '22 - 5:28pm

    Thank you for the article. However, I think you have confused language and ethnicity when discussing Kherson’s demographics. While it is true that only just over half of Kherson’s inhabitants are Ukrainian speakers, more than 70% are ethnic Ukrainians. I think this is an important distinction.

  • Charles Smith 2nd Aug '22 - 10:04pm

    The Ukrainian troops in Mariupol were taken prisoner after the fierce fighting for Ukraine’s Azov Sea port, where they had been holed up at the giant Azovstal steel mill. Their resistance has become a symbol of Ukrainian struggle against the Russian invasion that started on Feb. 24.

    The Azov Regiment and other Ukrainian units defended the steel mill for nearly three months, clinging to its underground maze of tunnels. More than 2,400 surrendered in May under relentless Russian attacks from the ground, sea and air.

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