Kyiv’s troops broke through earlier this week, threatening a larger thrust that could see them inch closer to the administrative center of Kherson, which has been controlled by the Russians since the early days of the war and is a strategically important port city with access to the Black Sea.
While Moscow’s defense ministry has not officially commented, the Russian-installed deputy head of the regional administration appeared to acknowledge its troops had lost ground in the south.
The Russian army in the Kherson region was “regrouping” to gather strength and strike back, Kirill Stremousov was quoted as saying by state news agency Ria Wednesday. He said there was “no movement” in Ukraine’s advance as of Wednesday, and the Ukrainian forces entering into the city of Kherson was “impossible.”
NBC News could not verify either side’s claims, but Western analysts said evidence suggested Ukraine’s military had gained the upper hand in the area.
British military intelligence said Wednesday that Ukraine continued to make progress in offensive operations along both the north-eastern and southern fronts, while the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, also said in its assessment Tuesday that Ukraine’s forces continued to make “substantial gains” in the north of the Kherson region, “beginning to collapse the sparsely-manned Russian lines in that area.”
While the Ukrainians have forced the Russians to fall back to their second defensive line, there has not been a collapse of Russian forces like the one seen during Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensive in the northeast last month, said Jack Watling, a military analyst at the U.K. think tank Royal United Services Institute.
That is partly because Russian troops in Kherson have been expecting a Ukrainian counterattack for some time, unlike in the northeast, and there is no similar shock value in their advance, Watling said.
“But the significance of these advances is that it’s progress, and it’s continuing to create problems in very different geographic areas for the Russian command,” he added. “And in particular, this is attriting some of their more capable troops.”
A Russian re-grouping for a counterattack, as suggested by local Moscow-installed officials, is not very likely, according to Watling.
“They are not able to mass enough material to conduct effective counter-attacks without massively depleting their forces and accelerating their losses,” he said. “I think they are going to try to hold the second defense line, make it as strong as possible and play for time.”
That play for time may be an effort to test the resolve of Ukraine’s Western allies and to allow Russia’s newly-mobilized troops to join the fight and strengthen its struggling military.
Zelenskyy spoke with President Joe Biden Tuesday, who underscored that the United States will never recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, according to a White House transcript. It came as the Biden administration announced a new $625-million security assistance package that includes additional weapons and equipment.
Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that more than 200,000 people have already been drafted into Russia’s armed forces after a call-up that prompted an exodus of military-aged men from the country and has also left analysts doubting its ability to drastically change Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield.
“If they are being used to slot into existing units, and there’s already the command and control in those existing units, then that will help stabilize some of the the troop levels, but you are still looking at a while, maybe a month or so, before these people are going to be useful militarily,” Watling said.
“If we’re talking about new units, which is really what the Russians need, because their troops are fairly exhausted, then you’re looking at February probably before there’s anything useful coming out of this,” he added.