Ukraine Situation Report: Officials Say Russian Lines Breached By Southern Offensive

Multiple Ukrainian officials confirmed the nation’s military has launched a multipronged offensive against Russian forces in and around the city and region of Kherson in the south, making at least initial progress through lines held by Russian and separatist forces in the area. 

After weeks of pounding the permanent bridge crossings of the Dnipro River, Ukrainian forces began attacking opposition troops along a wide front with the likely goal of trapping Russian forces against the river and routing them or at least making them abandon large quantities of ammunition and equipment if forced back across the waterway. 

Sergey Khlan, of the Kherson regional council, said Ukrainian forces have “breached the Russian first line of defense in the province.” 

Oliver Carroll, a foreign correspondent for The Economist, said the operation began overnight on Aug. 28th with Ukrainian strikes on Russian command posts and bridges followed by airstrikes and artillery shelling aimed at Russian defensive positions. 

The breakthrough was later referenced by Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security, an arm of the national Ministry of Culture. The agency said “Ukraine has a real chance to get back its occupied territories, especially considering the very successful use of Western weapons by the Ukrainian army.”

Senior U.S. officials were quoted as saying Monday’s ramp-up in attacks on Russian forces was part of initial “shaping” operations in southern Ukraine to prepare the battlefield for a larger future counteroffensive that will include both air and ground operations.

As the day unfolded, more references to the offensive rolled in from various Ukrainian and Russian officials, though most Ukrainian statements on the coordinated attacks were purposefully vague to maintain operational security. Natalya Gumenyuk, the chief spokesperson for Ukrainian forces in the south, simply confirmed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched an offensive “in many directions” in that sector.

Gumenyuk called for a communication blackout on details of the operation, saying the news that was already available had “inspired everyone” and that “we need to be patient and understand the sequence of actions of the military units.”

A U.S. Defense Department official confirmed an uptick in fighting near Kherson in the past several days but stopped short of claiming Ukraine has launched a major offensive. 

Ukraine’s repeated attacks on the two main bridges across the Dnipro make sense in the context of an offensive in the Kherson region. With both bridges unusable to vehicles (and likely unsafe for personnel), the only way across is by slow-moving, relatively low-capacity ferry barges, three of which are operating as the only link between the north and south banks of the river. An improvised pontoon bridge is still under construction and is about 60 percent done, or was at least that finished.

Those pontoons and ferry landings are obvious targets for Ukrainian HIMARS operators, though they are tucked under the shadow of the Antonovsky Bridge, which may provide some cover for them. However, at a ferry or one of the pontoon segments appears to have been struck sometime on Aug. 29. 

It’s important to note that Ukrainian troops eventually will have to tackle the Dnipro River if they want to attempt to oust Russian forces from the country. While blowing holes in the Antonovsky Bridge and the road and railway spans of the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam were sound tactical decisions, they also take the river crossings at least temporarily out of play for use by friendly forces moving south and east. 

If Russia ends up routed and trapped against the river with no avenue of escape, the episode could rival historical tactical victories like the closing of the Falaise Pocket during World War II in which Allied forces trapped 50,000 Axis troops in August 1944. Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army three-star general and former commander of U.S. Army Europe said the Ukrainian Army has an opportunity to trap as many as 25,000 Russian troops to the north and west of the Dnipro.

Russian forces tried their own strike on a bridge across the Ingulets River, where Ukrainian forces are thought to be advancing from. Captured on camera, the rocket attack missed the bridge, and several civilian vehicles were seen crossing when the munition struck. 

The day ended with a light show, courtesy of yet another Russian ammunition depot hit by Ukrainian artillery and exploding into the night over Nova Kakhovka in Kherson.

As is typical with news coming out of the war zone, the situation is rapidly changing and extremely complex. Before we get into the details of the 48 hours leading up to Monday’s offensive, readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

The drama surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest and supplier of 20 percent of Ukraine’s power demand, continues. Russia has occupied the plant since March and has been accused of hiding artillery and other weapons there as well as using it as an artillery firebase. New satellite images of the plant show damage to annex buildings near the plant’s nuclear reactors. Also clearly shown are Russian armored vehicles parked near one of the plant’s reactors. Fires can also be seen from space, burning near the plant and blamed by some for the loss of power to the installation last week that threatened to cause the reactors to overheat. Though the reactors have not been hit by artillery fire that Russia and Ukraine blame on each other, some support buildings have been damaged. 

An annex building about 120 meters from the main reactor was identified as one of the damaged buildings. Russian state media said the damaged building was used to store nuclear fuel, but that claim has not been independently confirmed. 

Aside from the risk of direct artillery strikes on the reactors causing a meltdown or release of radiation, the nearby brushfires are worrisome because they still threaten the installation’s external power source. Without power, the reactor cooling system runs on backup generators. If those fail, the reactors could overheat and cause a catastrophic meltdown. To prevent such an outcome, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are en route to the site and should be on the ground in the coming days. Reaching a deal to allow them to go there has been an arduous ordeal.

Given the risk, a U.S. defense official said the Pentagon believes “the safest outcome would be a controlled shutdown” of the plant. Unspecified American scientists monitoring the plant have not detected increased radiation levels, the official told reporters on Aug. 29. 

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council within the White House, said Russia has “essentially militarized the power plant by stationing forces there.” Holding the plant allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold Ukraine’s power supply hostage, Kirby said.

Speaking at an energy conference in Norway, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky echoed that sentiment, saying “Russia is the only terrorist in the world that has turned a nuclear power station into a battlefield.”  

Perhaps to deal with incoming Ukrainian ordinance that keeps destroying its ammunition stockpiles — often far behind the frontlines, Russia is relocating some air defense systems from Syria to Crimea. The S-300 battery that was ‘gifted’ to Syria but has remained under Russian control has been offloaded at a Russian port in the Black Sea. You can read our complete piece on the peculiar transfer here. It comes among a new round of accusations that Russia is running low on missiles. It has been using S-300s in ground attack mode for some time now, as well as for air defense.

A newer S-400 SAM battery has also been located in Crimea.

A Russian A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control aircraft was also supposedly spotted over western Crimea. This aircraft, which can ‘look down’ with its radar from on high, could help Russia spot low and slow-flying aircraft after long-range drone strikes have put Crimea on edge. Regardless, its presence is another sign of Russia trying to tighten its air defense posture on the occupied peninsula.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht on Aug. 29 announced that Berlin would deliver 14 Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks to the Czech Republic. The tanks will modernize the Czech military’s armor capabilities and backfill capacity lost when it donated Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine earlier in the war.

Meanwhile, the U.K. Ministry of Defense announced the donation of six unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, to Ukraine. The drones are meant to detect, locate and identify sea mines so the Ukrainian Navy can then destroy them. Mining of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has been a major factor in keeping grain exports bottled up there and it is thought that it will take significant time and effort to clear them to the point that the waterways approaching these logistical hubs will be risk-free.

Massive donations of weapons to Ukraine are beginning to have an impact on other supporting nations’ stockpiles, including that of the U.S. military. The Pentagon has transferred so many rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition to Ukraine that its stocks are now “uncomfortably low,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Through Aug. 24, the U.S. had donated 806,000 rounds of 155 mm howitzer ammo and does not have the preferred amount it would want at the start of war if one cropped up, military officials told the Journal.

Even with all the military equipment flowing to Ukraine, troops in the field still are finding ways to improvise capabilities to fit their operational needs. For the surprisingly effective attack on the Russian base at Saki airfield, far behind the frontlines in Crimea, Ukrainian troops used an “array of improvised weapons, explosives, and tactics,” The New York Times reports. An unnamed U.S. government official told the newspaper that the U.S. was given no advanced notice of the attacks, though various U.S. intelligence agencies have routinely shared information with Ukrainian forces to plan and carry out similar attacks in the past.  

Another bit of interesting bespoke weaponry popped up online over the weekend. Appearing in the below photo is a homemade kamikaze drone, the body of which looks to be made from a rocket-propelled grenade. It also features some commercial drone parts and 3D-printed attachment points for dropping grenades.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is now being sidelined within the Russian leadership, with operational commanders briefing President Putin directly on the course of the war, the U.K. Ministry of Defense says in its latest intelligence assessment of the war, citing independent Russian media reports. The assessment comes with a healthy amount of hedging, saying Russian soldiers with first-hand experience of combat in Ukraine “probably routinely ridicule” Shoigu for being out of touch with the situation on the ground and for stalled progress in achieving stated military goals. 

Shoigu has “likely long struggled to overcome his reputation as lacking substantive military experience, as he spent most of his career in the construction sector and the Ministry of Emergency Situations…” the U.K. MoD said. 

Meanwhile in Moscow, in a strange stunt apparently unrelated to the war, Shoigu’s daughter and son-in-law led an attempt to set the world record for most people performing a plank at the same time in the same place. 

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