Ukraine Situation Report: Retaking Kherson City Is Critical

Ukraine is continuing to press forward in its Kherson Oblast counteroffensive, a senior U.S. military official told reporters, including from The War Zone, Monday.

“We continue to see deliberate and calibrated operations by the Ukrainians to move forward but have no major updates provided in terms of territory taken back,” said the senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We do assess that Russian forces continue to reinforce their defensive lines against Ukrainian forces.”

When asked by The War Zone if Kherson City could fall this week, the official deferred questions to the Ukrainian military.

For Ukraine, capturing that city will be critical, but so too will be establishing a bridgehead across the Dnipro River, according to ISW.

“The Dnipro River is a formidable obstacle for its entire course in Ukraine,” ISW states. “Any military would struggle to cross it in the face of prepared defenders.”

The current position of Russian troops on the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast “is therefore a vital piece of terrain” both now and in the unlikely event that both sides agree to a ceasefire.

If the Russians hold that position, “the prospects for a renewed Russian offensive in southern Ukraine would be vastly improved,” according to ISW. Should Ukraine recapture the entire west bank of the river, “the Russians would likely find ground attacks against southwestern Ukraine extraordinarily difficult. The long-term defensibility of Mykolayiv, Odesa, and the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast thus rests in no small part on the liberation of western Kherson.”

Kherson City on the West Bank of the Dnipro River is an important strategic asset for both sides and crossing it would entail a major military endeavor according to the Institute for the Study of War. (Google Earth image)

The east bank of the Dnipro River is “strategically critical” as well, according to ISW.

“Russian military positions in these areas allow Russian forces to bring artillery, drone, and missile fire against much of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast from many short-range systems without having to use expensive longer-range capabilities that will always be in shorter supply,” according to ISW. “Ukraine’s hold on its entire western Black Sea coast will remain tenuous as long as Russia holds territory in southwestern Kherson much further north than the 2014 lines.”

The Dnipro River “should not be Ukraine’s first line of defense, but rather its last,” according to ISW. “Contested river crossings are very difficult but can be made easier if the attacker can make all preparations right at the river, including establishing protected artillery positions, pre-positioning bridging equipment, amassing necessary supplies, and generally laying in all the infrastructure needed to get across a wide river while the defenders fight back. The river is most reliable as a defense if the Russians must first advance to it and then prepare to cross it while Ukrainian defenders disrupt their efforts.”

There have been no major movements elsewhere on the battlefield, the U.S. military official said.

“In the Kharkiv counteroffensive, we assess while it remains a dynamic fight, there have been no major shifts in territory over the past day or so,” said the official. “Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to conduct artillery strikes against one another along the frontlines, with Ukraine consolidating its previous gains.“

In Donetsk, “Russian forces continue to conduct offensive operations against Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut with some minimal games. But the Ukrainians largely continue to hold the line.”

And while Moscow continues to mobilize reservists across Russia to take part in its all-out war on Ukraine, the Pentagon has not seen any major movements of those troops onto the battlefield, the official said.

“We’ve seen indications and anecdotal reports of mobilized Russian soldiers showing up for duty in Ukraine, but no indications of large troop movements at this time,” the official said.

Before we head into more from a busy day in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Hours after a deadly wave of Russian drone attacks using the Iranian Shahed-136 drones, which have been nicknamed “Doritos” because of their triangular wings, Ukrainian media reported another wave on Kyiv Monday night local time, with Ukrainian air defenses attempting to shoot them down.

Earlier in the day, Russian drone attacks, using the Shahed-136, and perhaps other drones, killed at least eight people in Kyiv and hit other targets across the country. You can read more about this wave of drone strikes in our coverage here.

Kyiv isn’t the only target of the Shahed-136. The pro-Russian LogKa OSINT milblogger posted a video claiming to be a Shahed-136 strike on a Ukrainian Army position near Mykolaiv.

Russian drones also struck sunflower oil tanks in Mykolaiv, yet another hit on Ukraine’s economic infrastructure.

Though it’s been widely reported that Iran is supplying Russia with drones, and there are mounds of evidence that they are, Iran continues to deny it.

The Senior Pentagon official also wouldn’t confirm a Washington Post story about Iran preparing the first shipments of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles for Russia. (Something we predicted could happen here).

Iran and Russia have united to “spread terror and death,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Monday.

When asked if the drone attacks on civilian infrastructure represent a war crime, the senior U.S. military official pointed to remarks made last week by Army Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighting “that Russia is striking indiscriminately and deliberately, civilian non-military targets in violation of the international rule laws of war. And those are war crimes.”

The drone strikes have led to increasing calls by Ukraine for systems to counter them, like the Centurion Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar, or C-RAM.

But it’s not that simple.

Today, Israeli officials walked back a comment made over the weekend by Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai that Israel should provide Ukraine with military aid.

As Ukrainian cities continue to be pummeled by Iranian drones, Ukraine is apparently developing its own attack drone. Ukraine Pravda reports that Ukroboronprom is working on an attack drone with a range of about 600 miles and a warhead that weighs about 165 pounds. This would be in addition to their improvized ‘Alibaba’ kamikaze drone conversions that have repeatedly struck targets in Crimea and border areas of Russia proper.

But drones are not invincible. One Russian drone, apparently on a mission to drop grenades on Ukrainian troops, was destroyed before it could reach its target.

While the Pentagon has not paid SpaceX for any portion of the use of its Starlink satellite communications system in Ukraine yet, the two parties are having discussions about it, the senior U.S. military official told reporters Monday.

“The Department of Defense has not paid SpaceX any funds in support of Starlink for Ukraine at this time,” the official said. “It’s something that we’re discussing with SpaceX in terms of what potential support could be provided, but at this point, DOD has not paid for SpaceX services as it relates to Starlink. We continue to remain in discussions about how best to support Ukraine and their satellite communication needs. But I’m not going to speculate or talk about actual future announcements.”

Starlink, considered a vital battlefield and civil communications link in Ukraine, became the subject of an international spat between SpaceX owner, billionaire Elon Musk, and the Ukrainian government after Musk earlier this month floated a “peace plan” that resulted in a Ukrainian diplomat telling him to “fuck off.”

After a big CNN scoop about his concerns that SpaceX could no longer fund the Ukrainian use of the Starlink system, Musk appeared to relent on a request that the Pentagon pick up the tab. What will happen remains to be seen. We’ll keep you posted.

Russian troops and equipment continue to flow into Belarus, its client state which shares a roughly 600-mile-long border with Ukraine to the south.

The first Russian troops to join the new force with Belarusian troops arrived in Belarus Saturday, Minsk’s defense ministry said, according to CNN. When the movements are completed, there will be about 9,000 Russian troops there, according to the head of the Belarus Department of International Military Cooperation, Valery Revenko.

Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan says the troop movements are most likely to enhance the training of Russia’s mobilized reservists. He cites the lack of heavy weapons movements, like tanks or armored personnel carriers, as one reason to draw that conclusion.

Still, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko seems to be preparing for something, readying 5,000 shelters to shield residents from potential missile strikes.

Unarmed Russian MiG-31 Foxhounds, meanwhile, have been spotted over Minsk.

When asked by The War Zone if the Pentagon believes Ukraine could be attacked from the north through Belarus as it was in February, the U.S. official said that it is “something we’re certainly keeping an eye on” but “at this time, we don’t have any indications that would cause us to change our perspectives on the battlefield as it stands right now.”

The Russian troop movements into Belarus come as NATO kicked off its annual nuclear deterrence exercise known as Steadfast Noon Monday. U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers are among the aircraft slated to participate in the event, which will be carried out over northwestern Europe and the North Sea. While Steadfast Noon is an established recurring exercise, this year’s iteration will be taking place amid heightened tensions with Russia after President Vladimir Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons as a response to the success of recent Ukrainian counteroffensives. You can read more about that in our coverage here.

Another NATO exercise kicked off Monday in Lithuania. “Soldiers from Lithuania and nine other NATO and partner countries: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia will train in the two-week training at the General Silvestro Žukauskas training ground (Švenčionių district) and its surroundings,” according to Baltics News.

Moscow, meanwhile, is also projected to hold its own annual nuclear exercises, called Grom, any day now. The Pentagon is tracking that, the U.S. official told reporters.

“We are aware that Russia is planning a strategic exercise, known as Grom,” the official said. “We expect that to happen in the relatively near future. And, again, this is another regularly scheduled exercise by Russia that is considered routine and typically involves large-scale maneuvers, strategic nuclear forces, including live missile launches. So we will continue to monitor that closely.”

Psychological operations to encourage an enemy to surrender are as old as war itself, but Ukraine is putting a new twist on that, loading up “how to surrender” instructions into multiple launch rocket system projectiles. It’s part of a wider outreach effort to convince Russians to lay down their arms that includes a phone hotline Russian military personnel can call to find out the conditions under which they can surrender.

Russia’s inability to properly equip its mobilized reserves has dogged Putin’s efforts to restock his supply of troops in the wake of several Ukrainian counteroffensives.

Video is emerging of what appears to be the latest example of that – those troops being given bulletproof vests designed for paintball games.

Those mobilized reservists, referred to derisively by Ukrainians as “mobiks,” are pretty low on the Russian pecking order, only ahead of convicts in the order of battle, according to an phone call Ukraine claims to have intercepted.

The mobilization is going so poorly that the head of that effort, Lt. Col. Roman Malyk, may have taken his own life, or at least that’s the official line.

Russia continues to use old weapons in Ukraine, like this Soviet-era PTRD-41 anti-armor rifle first used in World War II. While its rounds could penetrate the thin side armor of German tanks and self-propelled guns, its slow rate of fire combined with immense muzzle flashes made it an easy target to spot back then.

But Russia is also using more modern, highly lethal systems as well, like in this strike against a Ukrainian BMP-1.

Russian artillery fire continues to kill Ukrainian civilians.

And Russia is using its Lancet loitering munition, in this case on what was claimed to be a Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missiles system.

Although it could be possible that it was a decoy. It’s just too hard to offer a definitive answer.

The Osa-AKM short-range system is being paired with the newly donated German Flakpanzer Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns to combat suicide drones. The Ukrainian Weapons Tracker OSINT group reports that such pairings “are extensively used by Ukrainian forces to provide” an air defense bubble.

And speaking of the Gepards, Ukraine, not surprisingly, wants more.

Ukraine is still delivering blows of its own, dropping artillery on Russian troops.

But not all Russian military losses are the result of Ukrainian attacks. On Monday, a Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback crashed into an apartment building in the Russian city of Yeysk, reportedly the result of an engine failure, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. You can read more about that here.

Ukraine continues to make good use of captured Russian equipment, like this UR-77 Meteorite demining vehicle.

Ukrainians are also making good use of expended munitions as well.

As Ukraine has gained ground, its forces continue to uncover signs of Russian atrocities, like this mass burial site in the liberated town of Lyman.

More than 100 Ukrainian women were released in a prisoner exchange with Russia.

We will continue to update this story until we state otherwise.

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.