Ukraine bombed a bridge this week that is vital to Russian soldiers occupying the town of Kherson,
Ukrainian forces shelled the Antonovsky bridge overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday with US-supplied rockets, targeting a main crossing linking Kherson to the Dnipro River’s southern bank and the rest of the region, which is now almost entirely controlled by Russia.
British defence officials said the city is now “virtually cut off from other occupied territories”, the BBC reported.
Ukrainian forces used the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), supplied by the United States and remarkable for their precision strikes, to target the bridge.
To counter the effects of the Ukrainian strikes on supply chain problems, Russia has been using and floating bridges, said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in Ukraine-Russia conflict at Glasgow University. However, these structures are much more fragile and narrower than traditional bridges, which slows down the arrival of supplies, he said.
Strategically located between the Dnipro River and the Black Sea to the west, Kherson became the first Ukrainian city to fall under Russian control back in March.
While the Antonovsky bridge is the main gateway to Kherson from the south, Ukrainian forces also shelled a smaller bridge 70km to the northeast of the city. According to Sim Tack, an analyst at conflict-monitoring firm Force Analysis, this second bridge is an important access route that allows the transit of Russian troops and supplies from Nova Kakhovka, another city in Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine.
Although the Ukrainian strikes did not destroy the bridge, Tack said the damage caused will limit transit to light vehicles and heavier supply trucks will be cut off from Russian forces on the ground.
A prelude to the main event?
Some analysts have described the bridge strikes as a possible prelude to a larger Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russian troops that have been weakened by the lack of supplies.
But ultimately, Kherson cannot be retaken just by bombing bridges, said Glen Grant, senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation and a Russian military expert.
“At some point, troops will have to enter the city,” Grant said.
Huseyn said Ukraine should also make sure its own troops are in good shape for any future offensive, which could include the prospect of pitched street battles to retake the city. He said Ukraine should be sure to minimise any casualties, especially among the troops in this region who are among the best-equipped and -trained.
Methodically bombing Russian access points to the city will “reduce the sustainability of their position”, Tack said, possibly forcing Russian troops to withdraw and leaving behind only a small group of soldiers to cover their retreat.
The crucial role of HIMARS
The Ukrainian plan is to use the HIMARS to strike Russian command centres and ammunition depots, forcing a retreat, leading to a communication and supply chain meltdown, Huseyn said. Such a goal would have been unachievable without the US-supplied HIMARS, which are much more accurate than any other artillery in the Ukrainian arsenal.
In fact, receiving the HIMARS – a weapons system some have said could be a “game changer” in the conflict – may have had a lot to do with Ukraine’s decision to launch a counter-offensive in the Kherson region in the first place, Huseyn said.
Tack agreed that targeting the bridge with such accuracy would have been difficult if not impossible without the HIMARS. Ukrainian forces would have needed much more time and ammunition to achieve the same results if they were using traditional artillery, he said.
The HIMARS could even allow Kyiv to avoid a direct confrontation with the more numerous Russian army.
Russian forces have been positioning ammunition depots and command structures outside of the traditional artillery range. But HIMARS have an 80km range, twice as far as any rocket so far used on Ukrainian front line, said Grant.
Ukraine has thus been advancing slowly but surely. Grant described the Ukrainian counter-attack as proceeding in fits and starts, with the defending forces circling like hunting dogs ready to pounce on a weakened prey.
The Ukraine army’s previous strategy had already allowed it to retake some villages. The capture of Kherson, however, “would probably represent a turning point”, Grant said.
Kherson is the only regional capital outside of Russia-controlled Donbas. Moscow has gone to great lengths to “Russify” the city, installing an occupying administration and establishing the rouble as the “official” currency. The Kremlin has also encouraged Russian officials to relocate there and plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
If Kyiv retakes Kherson, it would be impossible for Moscow to continue pretending that everything is going well in Ukraine, Huseyn said. It would also give Ukraine a strategic edge, as the country would once again have access to several Black Sea ports that could facilitate grain exports.
Grant agreed, saying losing Kherson would be a huge moral blow to an already unmotivated Russian army.
Moreover, Russian troops would be exiled to the other side of the Dnipro River, which would offer the Ukrainians a natural line of protection. Kyiv could then free up some troops in the region and redeploy them to other fronts, like Donbas or Zaporizhzhia, Tack said.
Moscow is aware of the risk it is facing, which may be part of the reason why Russia has relented on its Donbas operation.
According to Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, “Moscow is redeploying as many troops as possible” to Kherson.