Russian troops today occupy Kherson and have carried out some limited assaults on Odesa.
The Russian army occupies most of the territory from Kherson and due east, including Mariupol. While Russia has said little about its long-term intentions, there is a growing awareness that Russia wants to consolidate the cities and towns, and even more importantly the ports along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
Such a consolidation would connect Russia by land to Crimea. Should Russia be able to capture Mykolaiv (Nikolaev) and keep control of the massive nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, it could prove fatal to Ukraine’s long-term survival as an independent country.
Ukraine in the past few weeks has been stepping up its attacks on Kherson, Mykolaiv and elsewhere in the region, moving in newly supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and stepping up attacks against Russian air defenses, ammunition dumps and command centers.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced his objective of retaking Kherson as soon as September.
Russia has kept a mostly limited force in and around Kherson as it concentrated its effort in the Donbas region. Many Russian troops have been brought home to be re-equipped, retrained and reinforced with new personnel and leadership.
Where these forces will locate when they are brought back into the war isn’t clear. Some analysts think they will go back to the Donbas as Russia aims to take Seversk and Bakhmut, which will help them consolidate the Donetz “republic,” just as they did in Luhansk.
But the Russian army can hold that area and rearrange its war front in the south just as easily. The Russian objective in Luhansk was not only territorial control. It was aimed at trapping Ukraine’s main force in a pincer movement. Ukraine pulled back its forces just in time to avoid that outcome.
If Ukraine’s army is seeking to launch a major offensive in the Kherson area, the Russians will have to meet that threat.
Russia has three end-games. The end-game we have seen, consistent with the announced objectives of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” is consolidating control of Luhansk and Donetsk. This end game is nearing completion.
The second end game is securing the southern area, perhaps as far to the west as Odesa. This is in process but nowhere near finished.
No major attacks have yet been launched against Odesa, and the Russians may not even have to fight for that city, depending on what happens elsewhere in the area.
Part of the southern strategy is to convert these areas into pro-Russian towns, meaning deporting pro-Ukraine populations and introducing Russian administration, currency, schools and governments in the area.
Local politicians have made it clear that they intend to hold referendums, probably this fall, that would ratify the annexation of these areas to Russia, much as a plebiscite was held in Crimea with the same purpose.
The Ukrainians remain in control of Mykolaiv and have been using local forces to try and run out pro-Russia elements there. If the Ukrainians fail to take Kherson, Russia will move on Mykolaiv in force.
The third Russian objective is to topple the Ukraine government and replace it with a pro-Russia regime. This is more than just an aspiration because the Kiev government is pro-NATO, won’t agree to any negotiation with the Russians until all Russian troops are out of Ukrainian territory and definitely will continue the war in some form in future, even if they lose the Donbas territory and the southern ports.
The “ace” in Kiev’s pocket is the sustained US pledge to send Ukraine increasingly capable weapons such as HIMARS. On the agenda now are F-16s.
The big question is whether Russia has enough muscle and enough equipment and supplies to actually roll up the Ukrainian army, either in the south as now seems likely, or elsewhere, for example in and around Seversk and Bakhmut.
Given what the Ukrainians are now saying openly, it looks like the last major battle in the war could be Kherson. Ukraine would have to be able to force the Russians out of the city and retake it. A lot will depend on how quickly Russia reinforces its forces in and around the historically important city.
Jews once were more than 30% of Kherson’s population. Today there are about 300 left, most of them killed by the Nazis in World War II (along with many Polish Jews who had escaped the Nazis in Poland only to be killed in Kherson by the Nazis). At one time the Kherson region featured a large and important Jewish population.
Kherson spawned a number of important Jewish personalities. Moshe Chertok, who became Moshe Sharett, was Israel’s second prime minister after David Ben Gurion. Sidney Riley, the “Ace of Spies”, was born Salomon Rosenblum in Kherson. Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known as Leon Trotsky, was the Communist revolutionary who was liquidated by Stalin.
Kherson has special meaning for this writer. My mother’s father was born there and my great grandfather died there. That was more than 125 years ago.
Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen