The first rocket flies into the sky, leaving a white fireball in its wake. The second follows not 10 seconds later, on the exact same trajectory, a 60-degree launch angle. The Ukrainian defenders fire off six rockets, one after the other, all of them coming from the HIMARS artillery system supplied by the United States. Six dark smoke trails remain in the evening sky, wafting over the sunflower fields.
It is the second day of the of the counteroffensive announced by the Ukrainian military in the southern part of the country and the multiple rocket launchers have been deployed in the border area between the regions of Mykolaiv and Kherson. The systems have fired off their arsenals three times within two-and-a-half hours, targeting Russian occupied areas.
At 80 kilometers, the range of the HIMARS is substantial. For most of the last two months, the Ukrainians have been using the rocket launchers to fire on strategically important targets far behind the front, including Russian ammunition depots and command posts. Recently, they apparently began adding enemy positions near the front to the target list.
Since early last week, Ukrainian canons in the area have been firing off an almost constant barrage. Artillerymen with gray, exhausted faces can be seen wandering through villages near the front when they have a bit of time off. Their constant shelling is designed to pave the way for an advance of tank units and ground troops into Russian occupied Kherson. "A new phase of the war has possibly begun," says Franz-Stefan Gady, a military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
The Ukrainian army, as has become clear recently in the border area between Mykolaiv and Kherson, has amassed troops in this part of the front and concentrated its firepower. When DER SPIEGEL reporters visited the area in June and July, they didn’t see nearly as many soldiers or as much materiel as in recent days.
Village squares are full of fighters, many of them recently arrived from other parts of the country. Trucks are transporting crates of munitions, water and food to the front, while military vehicles tow Soviet-made howitzers along the rural roadways. Elsewhere in southern Ukraine, warplanes can be seen on the beds of trucks being brought in for repairs.
Soldiers in the area confirm that the Ukrainians have pushed forward and conquered some tactical positions, but they stress that a long, hard fight lies ahead. Following weeks of bombardment, Russian supply lines have been battered, but they have not been broken.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive had long been awaited in the southern part of the country. In early July, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued orders that such an offensive be prepared, as Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced at the time. Even just the announcement was noteworthy, since the Ukrainian government so rarely speaks of concrete military aims. On Monday, after the attack near Kherson had begun, Zelenskyy announced in his daily video address that "Ukraine is returning its own." The occupiers, he said, will be expelled from Ukraine all the way to the border, "which has not changed."
The words of the Ukrainian president sounded more like a statement of fact than a threat. An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians believes in victory and also has a clear idea of what that should look like: Russia’s military and occupiers should be driven out of all Ukrainian territory, including the "People’s Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk, which broke away from Kyiv in 2014, and the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia that same year. People across the country say that after the numerous victims Ukraine has already sacrificed in this fight for its freedom, anything less would be unacceptable. And thus far, the news has been positive.
A damaged classroom in a village school in the Mykolaiv regionFoto: Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP
The south, with the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, is indispensable for the Ukrainians. The fields are full of watermelons, tomatoes, wheat and sunflowers, important agricultural goods for the country. Russia has already begun exporting agricultural products via Crimea and other ports. For Putin, access to the Black Sea and the land bridge to Crimea are important strategic objectives. Were the Ukrainians able to regain control over Kherson, the port city of Odessa would become even more difficult for Putin to take. Furthermore, the Ukrainians are also under pressure to produce successes on the battlefield in order to secure long-term military support from their Western backers. It would also take the wind out of the sails of those who would like to see a supposedly inferior Kyiv surrender to the invaders.
With the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, all signs point to the war having entered its third, and potentially decisive phase. After the initial Russian invasion, which failed miserably just outside the capital Kyiv, came the Donbas offensive, which was more successful from Moscow’s point of view. Now, Kyiv hopes to fight back in the south and regain some of the territory it lost earlier. "What has definitely changed is that Ukraine now holds the military initiative," says Gady, the IISS expert. "Moscow has shifted its troops such that they are now on the defensive, which makes large territorial advances such as those seen in the Donbas essentially impossible."
Gady believes that the events seen near Kherson in recent days still count as preparation for a larger advance. Either the Ukrainians want to prepare the way for a major offensive or they want to pin down the Russians there so they can launch an attack elsewhere. "We will definitely see another large Ukrainian offensive before the winter," says the military expert.
The most immediate goal of such an offensive would likely be that of pushing the Russians back to the Dnieper River. According to estimates, up to 15,000 Russian soldiers may currently be in the Kherson area west of the river. Should they become incapacitated or forced to retreat, it would represent a serious defeat for Moscow. Much of their equipment would likely end up in Ukrainian hands, since heavy equipment can no longer cross the damaged bridges spanning the Dnieper.
The tense expectancy of many Ukrainians is palpable on the social networks these days. Well-known journalist Oleksiy Sorokin recently wrote on Twitter: "I can feel how the whole country is awaiting good news from Kherson Oblast, checking the news every five minutes." The Russians, meanwhile, are playing down the Ukrainian attacks. Russian media has reported that there is neither electricity nor water in Kherson – though they insist that has nothing to do with the alleged Ukrainian offensive, but with an incident at an electrical station under Russian control.
Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar has urged her compatriots to refrain from speculating about military operations. "There is a main rule of information – the military are the first to talk about military operations, their progress, consequences, and results," she wrote recently on social media. But in a war in which soldiers and civilians are equipped with mobile phones and social media accounts, it is almost impossible to completely cut off the flow of information.
A resident looks at the remains of his home in Mykolaiv after it was destroyed by a missile.Foto: Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP
And it has become clear that the Ukrainians are primarily seeking to inflict damage on Russian troops with the help of Western artillery systems and thus pave the way for advancing tanks and infantry. In the initial days of the offensive, it looked as though Kyiv was having success with this approach. Several villages have apparently been retaken by Ukraine, indicating that the Russians’ first line of defense has ostensibly been broken – and on Sunday evening, Zelenskyy announced that the Ukrainian military had reconquered two more villages in southern Ukraine and one in the east, though he declined to name the villages in question. It looks as though the pressure has forced Russian troops to pull back to the next line of defense. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, seem to have suffered casualties as well in the fighting.
The real difficulty, though, is not that of advancing into an enemy-held village, but of holding it and supplying it once it has been retaken, says a Ukrainian soldier, who has been fighting on the southern front for most of the last five months. Several villages and settlements in the contested region have been reduced to rubble. The coming days will show whether the Ukrainians can defend their initial gains against Russian counteroffensives.
According to Franz-Stefan Gady, the Ukrainian reserve units now moving forward are undermanned and poorly trained. Military experts believe they are short on air defense systems and armored vehicles, which are necessary for adequate protection. Its Western partners have promised Kyiv the delivery of some air defense systems, such as the NASAMS system, but the plan calls for them to primarily be deployed for the protection of Ukrainian cities. The Ukrainian military, say experts, still lacks sufficient coordination to be able to use them in an offensive role on the front lines.
DER SPIEGEL reporters near the front have seen plenty of military transporters near the front, along with ambulances, but no armored troop carriers. Yet these vehicles are crucial for the protection of advancing infantry. Initial images from the advance have shown unprotected Ukrainian soldiers feeling their way through fields in the Kherson region and sitting on the roofs of vehicles out of fear of landmines. Hardly surprising, then, that Ukrainian soldiers on the southern front have reported painful losses in recent days.
Ukrainian soldier in the Mykolaiv region
Ukraine’s allies, including Germany, could help out with armored vehicles, along with other materiel. And Berlin had hoped to send Marder infantry fighting vehicles to Greece in a swap deal so that Athens could then deliver 100 Soviet-era armored personnel carriers to Ukraine. But the deal has been delayed due to discrepancies regarding the condition of the German vehicles.
To keep their offensive going on the long term, the Ukrainians don’t just need weapons, but also a constant supply of munitions and capable, well-trained recruits. To provide the firepower needed, Ukraine’s allies will likely have to boost production for the foreseeable future and set up more training programs, as Britain is already doing. The British have begun training thousands of Ukrainian fighters in 90-day courses while the EU still hasn’t been able to make a decision about such a program.
The Ukrainian soldiers one meets at the southern front have remained realistic regarding the potential for rapid success. Patience is necessary, says one soldier, saying that he thinks the liberation of significant swaths of land will come in a month. If Ukraine is able to reconquer the part of Kherson that lies west of the Dnieper by the end of the year, he says, that would be an excellent result.
The fighters caution against underestimating the enemy troops, particularly in defensive positions. The Russians and their allied fighters have been digging in for months in the south, and have fortified many of their positions with concrete.
On top of that, the occupying troops have been firing almost daily on the city of Mykolaiv, which remains under Ukrainian control. Recently, a Russian bombardment killed two civilians there and only barely missed the city’s most important bridge.
Currently, the number of Ukrainian troops operating in Kherson remains lower than the Russian total. That has led to a strategy of repeated incursions behind enemy lines, such as the strikes seen recently in Crimea, in an attempt to demoralize the invaders. It isn’t yet clear just how successful this tactic might ultimately be.
As the fighting continues and intensifies, oppression of the civilian population by Russian units in occupied territories could increase – not least because of the activities of Ukrainian partisans behind enemy lines. Those partisans are doing all they can to scout Russian positions and help Ukrainian artillery target munition dumps, anti-aircraft positions and command posts. A pro-Ukrainian activist who was able to flee from Kherson in the spring says that Russians tend to react to strikes on strategic targets with apartment searches, intimidation and arrests.
And even if the morale of Putin’s troops west of the Dnieper River is poor, as Ukrainian troops have been reporting for weeks, the enemy is still tenacious, despite unreliable supply lines. "They are professionals," says one Ukrainian soldier. "We can see as much from our drone images of how they move." Russian troops, he says, have thus far shown no signs of panic. If the Ukrainians want to push the invaders out of the entirety of their territory, they must prepare for tough battles ahead.