As the Kremlin seems to see, the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson on the Dnipro River has already been incorporated into the Russian Federation.
Home to 280,000 people before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Kherson was the first major population center in the war-torn country to fall to Russian troops, and its Russia-appointed administrators have accelerated efforts to erase all signs of Ukrainian sovereignty.
They have issued Russian passports to residents, introduced Russian banks, brought in Russian mobile phone companies and made the ruble the legal currency, replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia.
But with the war days away from entering its sixth month, the Ukrainian authorities are signaling that the time is fast approaching when its military will try to recapture the conquered city and expel its Russian occupiers.
President Volodymr Zelenskyy and members of his administration have called on civilians to get out of the way.
“I know for a fact that there should be no women and children there and that they should not become human shields,” said Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk recently.
Kherson key to both sides: retired colonel
For the past six weeks, Ukrainian aggression has been interrupted in pieces by Russian-held territory in the south of the country, allowing its soldiers to get within 20 kilometers of Kherson.
“44 settlements have already been liberated in Kherson Oblast,” Dmytro Butriy, the acting head of the region’s military administration, told an online news conference in Kiev on Thursday.
“The situation there is difficult,” he continued, claiming that the devastation from Russian shelling is “massive” and that homes, schools and many other buildings have been damaged.
But whether it is as far as the counter-offensive reaches, and how much force the Ukrainian military can muster after weeks of bruising in the southeastern Donbas region is still unclear.
Retired Ukrainian Colonel Serhiy Grabsky claims that the fate of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war depends on his military possessing Kherson – and that Ukraine is able to pry it away.
“This location will open the door to the liberation of the entire country and the completion of all of Russia’s strategic goals,” said Grabsky, who has served in several international roles through a 28-year career, including as a military adviser to the Iraqi. government.
He said pushing Russia out of Kherson would end any threat to Ukrainian cities, such as Mykolaiv and Odesa, and put Russian military installations on the Crimean peninsula within reach of Ukraine’s new Western weapons – including long-range US HIMARS rocket launchers.
“We could put all exits from Crimea under ‘fire control’, as we call it,” Grabsky said.
While Russia is waging war along a huge 1,000-kilometer-long front, most of its forces are concentrated in the Donbas region, where both sides have been locked in a vicious battle of exhaustion.
Russia has gained territory, including the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, but at significant cost in the lives and equipment of its soldiers.
HIMARS surpasses Russia’s arsenal
Grabsky said the southern front, which includes Kherson, is stretched thin, with Ukrainian and Russian forces more or less equal.
That is why, he said, Ukrainian commanders see an opportunity to massage their forces and break through Russian lines.
“I’m absolutely optimistic,” he told CBC News.
Estimates of Russian military losses since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, range from a high number of nearly 37,000 dead – as claimed by Ukraine – to closer to 15,000 or 20,000 based on estimates from the United States and Britain.
However, Ukraine has also suffered heavy losses, including up to 200 soldiers killed in action every day on top of the battles over Severodonetsk, where Russia eventually won.
Instead of a complete attack on Kherson, Grabsky said he expects Ukraine to continue a “gentle push” of its forces, to cut off supply routes into the city and eventually cut it off.
Recently, Ukraine has used its high-mobility artillery missile system, or HIMARS, to disrupt Russian supply centers deep inside occupied territory, including several ammunition depots.
The United States has provided Ukraine with eight HIMARS so far, with four more on the way. The missiles are capable of hitting targets at a distance of more than 80 kilometers with precision – far beyond the possibilities of anything Russia has in its arsenal.
Footage shared by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense showed what it claims was the destruction by precision fire from HIMARS of a Russian ammunition dump in Nova Kakhovka, near Kherson. And earlier this week, Ukraine claimed that the same system hit a Russian command post and killed a number of senior officers.
If Ukraine can launch a counter-offensive in the south leading to the liberation of Russian-controlled territory, it would be the first such success for Ukraine’s military since the February invasion.
By comparison, when Russian troops were driven out of the Kyiv region and parts of northern Ukraine around Kharkiv in April, it was after their own offensives failed.
Other military observers, however, remain vigilant in predicting a Ukrainian breakthrough in Kherson.
Russia’s ‘abrasive’ campaign effective
Retired four-star US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who served as NATO’s top ally commander in Europe from 2013-16, told BBC Radios Today program this week that Russia’s “abrasive, arbitrary” campaign to tear down Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure has been effective.
But, he said, Ukraine can probably still bring a significant army to battle against Kherson.
“They do not have the massive workforce that Russia has across its nation, but I will tell you that Ukraine has far more experienced soldiers than Russia has. It is in Ukraine’s favor,” Breedlove said.
Rob Lee, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia who has carefully tracked the course of the conflict, suggests that Ukraine will need more help from all types of the West if an offensive is to succeed.
“Kyiv is likely to require a more robust training program and ammunition if it is to recapture a considerable amount of territory,” he wrote in a Twitter post.
Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said it appears that Ukrainian commanders have decided that there is more to be gained by focusing on Kherson than by attacking in the Donbas, where Ukraine has steadily surrendered territory.
“I would no doubt believe that by the end of the summer they will have been shown to do something that it is not a stalemate,” he told CBC News.
Away from the battlefield, Russia has increased the pressure on European nations like Germany by limiting gas supplies. It is also blocking Ukrainian grain shipments from leaving ports on the Black Sea, creating a global food crisis.
The Kremlin seems to be hoping that the ongoing pressure will undermine the West’s willingness to help Ukraine and will convince the Ukrainians to accept Russia’s conditions for surrender.
Conversely, if Ukraine can demonstrate that a significant battle victory over Russia is possible, it is in a stronger position to demand more Western aid, O’Brien said.
Kherson is “where they should be able to attack with the greatest chance of success – when they are ready.”
‘We are in a phase of attrition’
Putin has repeatedly scaled down his stated goals for his invasion of Ukraine.
To begin with, the lightning attack on Kiev with paratroopers in the early hours of the war aimed to conquer the capital and behead the Zelensky government.
So, after Russian troops suffered heavy losses and withdrew, Putin’s commanders reformulated the war as a battle for the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region.
But despite some territorial gains, Russia’s military has not been able to push Ukrainian forces out of the eastern region, nor curb major losses on its own side.
“We are in a phase of attrition. And the phase of attrition must end at some point,” O’Brien said.
“I think when it ends, it will end quickly because [front] line will be too weak and a major adjustment needs to be made. “
Grabsky, the retired Ukrainian colonel, said he believes HIMARS could be what shifts the balance of the conflict in Ukraine’s favor.
“The intensive attacks on Russia’s logistical system really mean that Russians will day by day lose their ability to move into Ukrainian territory,” he said.