Keeping an eye on Kherson, Ukraine prepared an ambitious counterattack.

Kherson Region Border, Ukraine — The road to Russian-held Kherson in southern Ukraine winds through burned wheat fields and uprooted villages. Rocket tails stick to the asphalt and the boom of incoming and outgoing artillery echoes outside the tidy, abandoned houses.

Ukrainian forces are preparing for one of the most ambitious and important military initiatives of the war: the recapture of Kherson. The first city to fall to Russian forces, Kherson and its surrounding fertile land are an important Russian beachhead, from which its military continues to launch offensives across much of Ukraine. Regaining control could also help restore momentum in Ukraine, giving its troops a much-needed morale boost after months of vicious fighting.

“We want to liberate our territory and return it to our control,” said Senior Lieutenant Sergei Savchenko, whose unit is with Ukraine’s 28th Brigade on the western border of the Kherson region. has been dug along. “We’re ready. We’ve wanted this for a long time.”

Already, fighting is intensifying on the region’s western and northern borders, as Ukrainian forces – currently at their closest point about 30 miles from the city – lay the groundwork for a major offensive push. For a month, Ukrainian artillery and rocket forces have been softening Russian positions, using an array of new, Western-supplied weapons such as US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS.

Ukrainian officials say the attacks, some of which were captured on video, have taken out forward command centers and key ammunition depots, which erupted in bright fireballs when struck. They claim that hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed and that Russia’s logistics infrastructure has been affected by these attacks. Supply warehouses and command positions have been pushed back from the front lines, he says, making it difficult to keep troops armed and fed. Not all of their claims can be independently verified.

“You can compare it to waves,” said a senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “Right now we’re making small waves and creating the conditions to make big waves.”

Unlike in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where a large Russian army has gradually taken control of the province in recent weeks, it appears that the Ukrainian military has begun to turn the tide in the Kherson region if it is holding back. is given

After losing control of much of the territory in the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian troops have now liberated 44 towns and villages along the border, about 15 percent of the territory, the region’s military governor, Dmytro Butri, said. According to. Top Ukrainian officials have not given a clear timeline for taking Kherson back, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has made it clear that it is a top priority.

“Our forces are entering the region step by step,” Mr. Zielinski said this week.

Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive in the south has sparked debate among Western officials and some analysts about whether Ukraine was ready for such a massive effort, or whether it was a waste of resources when Russian advances have largely taken place in the Donbass. Best use.

Still, Ukrainian officials and several Western intelligence officials said it was important that Ukraine try to strike back. They say the Russian military is in a relatively weak position, having expended weapons and personnel in its Donbass offensive. Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, predicted that offering Ukrainian forces an opening would force the Russians to pause.

Any attempt to recapture key territory would nevertheless be a huge undertaking. Russian forces have now occupied the Kherson region for nearly five months and have been largely unrelenting in their efforts to harden the military position and prepare for an attack. They have installed new leaders in the city as well as in the big towns and villages.

Some Western and Ukrainian officials say a counterattack would require larger numbers of troops and weapons systems far more aggressive than Ukraine’s. Ukraine is spending 6000 to 8000 shells per day in total. If he were to launch an active attack on Khorsan, he would need three to four times as many.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov has spoken of the need to raise a million-strong army to retake territory lost in Ukraine’s war. The Kherson region is mostly rural, but the city of Kherson is a sprawling city spanning the Dnipro River. Taking it back could involve a vicious civil war with heavy losses of troops and property.

“We look at Kherson like it’s the next Fallujah,” said Michael Maldonado, a 34-year-old former U.S. Marine from Kansas who joined the 28th Brigade. “It’s going to be a very crazy fight.”

The Ukrainian military will also have to consider the large number of civilians. The city has lost about a third of its pre-war population of about 300,000, but a full-scale attack involving shelling could put people at greater risk than Ukrainian officials believe. Consciousness of

Last month, a deputy prime minister, Irina Vryshchuk, urged residents of Kherson and the surrounding area to evacuate. “Please, go because our army will definitely destroy these lands,” he said. “Our will to do so is unwavering.”

In the villages now controlled by Ukraine’s 28th Brigade along Kherson’s western border, only the foolish stay above ground for long. Dark mushroom clouds hang on the horizon and artillery shells bounce back and forth across the farm fields. This week, the brigade’s commander, Vitaly Glyev, was killed in a rocket attack.

“Every day, we fire at them and they answer us, but they don’t make any progress,” Lt Savchenko said. “Right now we are occupying the area, but as soon as there is an order, as soon as we have the possibility to do so, we will move forward.”

Russian forces passed through the area at the start of the war, moving west along the Black Sea coast toward the main Ukrainian port city of Odessa. But they were stopped halfway. Fierce Ukrainian resistance around the town of Mykolaiv pushed Russian troops back into the Kherson region, where they remain.

Most of the residents have fled the front villages. The few who stayed spent most of their time in bunkers or basements.

Larissa Musli, 74, and her husband have lived in the basement of their home since the war began on February 24. Ms Musley never goes out these days, although her husband comes home regularly to look after the family pets: a dog, a cat and a hamster. They have decorated the dungeon with tents and LED lights and have occasional visits from the Ukrainian military chaplain who looks after them.

“We put our trust in God and our bomb shelter,” he said.

“Send more weapons,” he added, “so we can take them out.”

To help prepare the ground for the offensive, Ukraine’s military intelligence service has been quietly training an army of saboteurs to carry out acts of sabotage and provide information on the locations of Russian troops. Sending to occupied area. Officers installed by the occupying Russian authorities have been killed and in some cases their vehicles have been blown up.

In a run-down hotel outside Odessa, Natalia, a mother of four, finds herself an unlikely warrior. She fled her farm in the area in April when Russian soldiers began arriving at her home looking for explosives.

Despite living in exile in another part of the country, she still tries to resist Russia. Her husband, who stayed behind, calls her regularly with information about the latest Russian military movements in the region, she said.

“He tells me where they stand,” she said. “And I hand it over to my boys, the armed forces.”

Recently, Natalia said, her husband had begun to lose heart. He explained that he could no longer hear the Ukrainian gunfire, and felt as if he had been abandoned. Then the guns started again.

“Our guys started shooting, and I could see, his morale improved,” Natalia said, as her mother cursed the Russian army.

Mark Santora contributed reporting from London.