Kyiv is bracing for heavy fighting in Kherson as Russian troops dig in to defend the province in what could be the most consequential showdown of the eight-month war.
“The heaviest of battles for Kherson is ahead,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych told dissident Russian lawyer Mark Feygin on his YouTube show Tuesday.
“It is still difficult to talk about the prospects for its liberation, because they [the Russians] are doing everything to strengthen their grouping,” he continued, according to a CNN translation.
The city of Kherson — capital of the province of the same name — fell to Russian forces in the opening hours of the invasion in February. It remained the only major city under Russian control until the fall of Mariupol in May.
The province has long been the apparent centerpiece of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to declare Ukraine a part of Russia, with occupation authorities in Kherson hinting as early as May at the shotgun annexation rolled out last month.
There were reports as early as the spring of occupiers issuing residents Russian passports and forcing them to use the Russian ruble for transactions.
Kyiv’s forces have been slowly advancing on the city since the opening of a southern front in Ukraine’s counterattack — a stark contrast to their rapid advance in the northeast, where liberating soldiers have already pushed Russian occupiers back into the heart of the Donbas region.
But Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Wednesday that Kyiv’s advance in Kherson may grow slower still.
“First of all, the south of Ukraine is an agricultural region, and we have a lot of irrigation and water supply channels, and the Russians use them like trenches,” Reznikov told reporters.
“The second reason is weather conditions. This is the rainy season, and it’s very difficult to use fighting carrier vehicles with wheels,” he said.
The Ukrainian military said Wednesday that Russian forces were continuing to place mines along the eastern bank of the Dniper River — which bisects the western portion of the province — and set up defensive positions.
Ukrainian forces have not advanced along the river since liberating a series of villages in the northern part of the province three weeks ago.
The city of Kherson sits in the southwestern part of the province — firmly in Russian control, but on the western bank of the Dniper.
Both Moscow and Kyiv seem to be preparing for a protracted, brutal fight over the city, with some Kremlin commentators leaving the door open for a strategic Russian retreat from the regional capital.
Pro-Russian military blogger Boris Rozhin likened the coming fight to the Battle of Stalingrad — a bloody World War II battle in which the Soviet Red Army delivered an embarrassing defeat to the Nazis, at the cost of millions of lives.
“If a political decision is made to hold Kherson and the bridgehead on the [west bank], then we can expect long-term intense fighting in this direction,” he said in a post on the messaging app Telegram.
“If a political decision is made to withdraw from the [west bank] of the Dnieper, then, of course, there will be no Stalingrad there.”