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Ukrainian forces are preparing for a bloody battle for Kherson

Ukrainian forces are preparing for a bloody battle for Kherson

  • Ukrainian forces are closing in on Russian-controlled Kherson
  • Recapturing the city would be a major victory in the war
  • Kherson acts as a gateway to Crimea, annexed in 2014
  • Soldiers in the trenches predict a fierce fight

FRONT LINE WEST OF KHERSON, Ukraine, Nov 4 (Reuters) – Oleh, the commander of a Ukrainian mechanized infantry unit dug in the trenches west of Kherson, is confident that his Russian enemies will be forced out strategic port due to winter weather, logistical delays and the danger of encirclement.

But neither he nor his men think the Russians will go away quickly or quietly, nor do they intend to let them.

His comments raise the specter of a bloody scramble in coming weeks for control of the key city on the west bank of the Dnieper River that acts as a gateway to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.

“They will continue to fight. They will defend their positions as long as they are able to do so,” said Oleh, 26, a battle-hardened major who has risen through the ranks since enlisting as a teenager 10 years ago. “It’s going to be a tough fight.”

Kiril Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian administration in the Kherson region, said Thursday that he hoped Russian forces would start the fight.

“If we leave Kherson, it will be a big blow,” he added in comments carried by Russian broadcaster RT.

The contest for the only provincial capital captured by Moscow in the full-scale invasion launched on February 24 may be one of the most significant of the war so far.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it would be another setback after a series of significant battlefield losses since mid-August.

With control of the west bank of the Dnieper, military experts said, Ukrainian forces would have a springboard from which to seize the bridgehead on the east side to advance on Crimea.

Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and Kiev has made the recovery of the peninsula its sworn goal.

If Kherson fell in the counteroffensive, experts add, it would also be a political humiliation for Putin, because Kherson is one of the four partially occupied regions of Ukraine that he announced would be part of Russia. “forever” with great fanfare on September 30.

“It would be a huge blow, primarily politically,” said Philip Ingram, a retired senior British military intelligence officer. “And that would cost him (Putin) militarily. If the Ukrainians could get a bridgehead on the east side of the Dnieper, it would be even worse for the Russians.”

The Ukrainians “will be able to strike the Russians who are defending the approaches to Crimea,” said retired U.S. General Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. military forces in Europe.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russians appeared to have already begun an “organised, phased withdrawal” from the west bank of the Dnieper.

ITCH FOR AN ATTACK

Thousands of civilians from the city and surrounding areas have been evacuated to the eastern side of the Dnieper in recent weeks after Russian-appointed occupation authorities warned of the dangers posed by the Ukrainian advance.

On Friday, Putin publicly approved an evacuation that Kiev says involved forced deportations of civilians from Russian-occupied territory – a war crime – which Russia denies.

The occupation authorities also moved administrative offices and records to the east coast, and a western source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most Russian commanders had also moved their bases.

U.S. officials and Ukrainian commanders said the Russians were beefing up their front lines, including deploying recently mobilized reservists, in an attempt to better protect the withdrawal.

Some Ukrainian soldiers believe that poorly trained Russian reservists are being sent forward “like lambs to the slaughter” while more experienced troops dig into defensive lines further away, according to US officials.

An orderly withdrawal could prove challenging for the Russians, requiring coordination, deception to conceal movements, communications discipline and an intense artillery barrage to counter the Ukrainian advance.

But Ukrainian troops could also face serious obstacles that could halt their takeover of Kherson, including mines and concentrated Russian artillery and rocket fire from the east coast, Hodges said.

As the sides fought occasional artillery duels on Friday, Oleh’s 100-man unit took advantage of the unusually mild weather to clean weapons and install floors in bunkers covered in dirt and logs that are lined with thermal insulation and have portable generators and wood-burning stoves.

The unit, with six armored personnel carriers, took up its positions in September after Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops back to Kherson’s border with Mykolaiv province.

Oleh said the Russians are running out of time, as January would bring ice floes down the Dnieper that could block ferry operations.

He was eager to hit the enemy’s weak spots to cause panic among the reserves that could turn into defeat.

“If we don’t start an attack, they’re just going to keep sitting there,” he said. “Mobilized are good for us because they create panic. Panic is contagious like a disease. It spreads.”

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Edited by Mike Collett-White and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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