Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia begins: ‘This is everything for them’

Click to play video: 'Munitions explode as Ukrainian counter-offensive fighting ongoing in Kherson region'
Munitions explode as Ukrainian counter-offensive fighting ongoing in Kherson region
WATCH: Munitions explode as Ukrainian counter-offensive fighting ongoing in Kherson region – Aug 30, 2022

A long-awaited counteroffensive by Ukraine has begun in an attempt to take back territory held by Russia in the country’s south.

Ukraine has been tight-lipped around operational details of the offensive that started Monday, but defence analysts say the mission will be a pivotal moment for the nation in the so far six-month-long war.

Read more: Ukraine war: Southern counter-offensive against Russia has begun, military says

“This is everything for them,” said Andrew Rasiulis, a defence expert with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“The Ukrainian current political objective … is the forced military expulsion of all Russian forces from occupied Ukraine, including Crimea. … It must now physically conduct a substantial counteroffensive to force the Russian military to leave all of Ukraine. … That’s why this offensive is fundamental.”

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What’s going on?

Following weeks of buildup, Ukraine’s southern military command said on Monday it had begun a counteroffensive in the region. Fighting has been concentrated in the east since April, after Russia failed to topple Kyiv in its wide-scale invasion that started Feb. 24.

Since then, the war has grinded out in Donbas, which has seen several cities fall into Russian hands such as Luhansk and Mariupol. In June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces occupied 20 per cent of his nation.

This graphic from the British Ministry of Defence shows Russian held areas in southern Ukraine, and attack positions, as of Sept. 1. British Ministry of Defence via Twitter

Ukraine has regularly stated its intention to retake its south. Zelenskyy said in his nightly address on Monday that Kyiv’s objective is to push Russia out of the country, and retake Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

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With fighting ongoing in cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv, operational details around the true scale of the counteroffensive have been scarce. But Ukraine has acknowledged its offensive involves the southern city of Kherson, which fell to Russia in the early days of the war.

For weeks, Ukrainian forces have targeted ammunition depots in the region and large bridges across the Dnipro River that are vital to bringing supplies to the Russian troops. Ukraine also reported destroying a pontoon crossing the Dnipro this week that Russian forces were setting up, and hitting a dozen command posts in several areas of the Kherson with artillery fire.

Click to play video: 'Putin’s plans have backfired, resulting in growing support for Ukraine'
Putin’s plans have backfired, resulting in growing support for Ukraine

Both sides have claimed battlefield successes; Moscow has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine’s southern military command said Thursday it would not immediately name settlements in the south it had recaptured to avoid prompting Russian strikes on them.

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“This demonstrates to the Ukrainian population and to Ukraine’s allies that no longer is Ukraine fighting a purely defensive fight and absorbing what the Russians are bringing in. They have now amassed enough forces with enough confidence, enough resources to switch over and to undertake offensive action,” said Mark Popov, a retired lieutenant colonel and former armour officer who commanded a Canadian combat team in Afghanistan.

“To have an enemy that figured back in February would be an easy win, then encountered stiff resistance, became bogged down and all of a sudden (Ukraine) … has been able to switch over to the offence — that sends a message.”

Why is Kherson in focus?

Retaking Kherson would be significant for Ukraine, said Denis Thompson, a retired Canadian major general and former commander of NATO’s Task Force Kandahar.

Kherson is the only regional capital that Russia has been able to capture since it invaded six months ago. It is a major economic hub that lies north of the Crimean peninsula and has coasts on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is considered one of Moscow’s prized possessions since the full-scale war began.

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The Ukrainian city of Kherson is shown here on a map created by Global News. Kherson, located in southern Ukraine, is the only regional capital that Russia has been able to capture since it invaded six months ago. Global News graphic

The city sits alongside the Dnipro River, which runs through Ukraine and essentially cuts the nation into two. Kherson is also a source of freshwater supply for Crimea, Thompson said.

“If they can take Kherson, then that will be significant at an operational or strategic level,” he said.

“In other words, it will influence those that might think we’re stuck in a frozen conflict and it’s not going to move forward, rather, that this thing can be resolved on the field of battle, and that’s why it’s significant if they can take Kherson.”

Read more: Ukraine war: Kherson in focus as counteroffensive against Russia begins

Kherson’s proximity to Crimea also holds value, Popov said.

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“There’s not only a tactical value to it in denying the Russians the ability to cross the river easily in that location and hampering lines of communications for them to further push into Ukraine,” he said.

“But there’s that political significance that we are going to retake this oblast capital that the Russians took from us, and we’re going to get it back and we’re going to do it in proximity to Crimea.”

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian soldiers fire rocket launchers and capture Russian attack helicopter as ‘a trophy’'
Ukrainian soldiers fire rocket launchers and capture Russian attack helicopter as ‘a trophy’

On Wednesday, Ukraine said it had “successes” in three areas of Kherson, but wouldn’t provide further details. Tough battles have been reported all across the region, and recapturing the city won’t be a “cake walk” for Ukraine, said Rasiulis.

“The Russians must hold that in order to protect Crimea,” he said.

“The Ukrainians … must take Kherson to deny the Russians that objective.”

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What’s at stake?

It’s not clear how long the counteroffensive will play out, but Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Thursday it will be a “very slow process, because we value people.”

As word has been circulating for weeks about a counteroffensive, Ukraine doesn’t have the element of surprise on their side, nor are there any reports of overwhelming forces in the area, Rasiulis said.

Read more: UN team arrives at Ukraine nuclear plant despite shelling

Ukraine isn’t also going to attempt to recapture cities in the same manner that they were taken by the Russians, Thompson said.

“In other words, they’re not going to smash it with artillery,” he said.

“They’re going to be forced to clear it house-by-house, street-by-street, block-by-block in a manner that produces the least amount of collateral damage possible, and that’s going to take time.”

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All signs point to another grind-out fight between the two nations, the analysts say, which brings into question ongoing support for Ukraine by the West. Western nations have said they’ll be there to support Kyiv throughout the war. Ottawa itself has committed billions in financial and military aid to Ukraine.

Click to play video: 'EU energy in jeopardy as Russia says Canadian-repaired pipeline turbine’s delivery ‘impossible’'
EU energy in jeopardy as Russia says Canadian-repaired pipeline turbine’s delivery ‘impossible’

But in Europe, where an energy crisis looms ahead of winter over reduced Russian gas supplies, support hasn’t been steadfast. In the spring, it took the EU weeks to reach a consensus on a partial embargo on Russian oil coming in by sea, but allowed a temporary exemption for imports delivered by pipeline. On Wednesday, the EU agreed to make it harder for Russian citizens to enter the bloc, but stopped short on an outright tourist ban.

Ukraine is potentially risking some of that support if its counteroffensive doesn’t yield positive results, Popov said.

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“No military operation is without risk. In this case, Ukraine’s strategic planners and key leaders have said it’s worth the risk,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any kind of ground-breaking, war-ending achievements or accomplishments in this counteroffensive, but it’s those small incremental steps, incremental victories, chewing away at the will of the Russians to continue occupying, that could play into Ukraine’s favour.”

— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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