Ukraine said it had launched a counter-offensive against Russian forces near the city of Kherson in an attempt to reverse some of the territorial gains made by Moscow in the six months since its full-scale invasion.
A senior Ukrainian government adviser confirmed that Kyiv had begun a major operation aimed at retaking the strategically important southern city that was captured by Russian forces early in the war.
“The next phase of the counteroffensive is beginning,” the adviser said. “It started with massive attacks on Russian military infrastructure and logistics.”
The long-anticipated assault on Russia’s forces is aimed at recapturing territory Moscow seized in the war’s early weeks, when its troops swarmed in from the Crimean peninsula to the south.
Over the past two months, Ukraine has carried out dozens of strikes on Russian supply lines and infrastructure supporting Moscow’s occupation of the region.
Key to that effort is Ukraine’s deployment of western weaponry such as US-made Himars, truck-mounted guided missile launchers that have an attack range of up to 80km. This has greatly increased Ukraine’s ability to strike far behind enemy lines.
Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security wrote on Twitter that the country’s armed forces had “breached the occupiers’ first line of defence near Kherson”, the only provincial capital Russia has captured since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion in February.
“Ukraine has a real chance to get back its occupied territories, especially considering the very successful use of western weapons by the Ukrainian army,” it added.
Kherson, a mostly flat province on the delta where the Dnipro river flows into the Black Sea, has strategic importance for Russia as a “land bridge” to Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote on Telegram that the country’s military was “grinding down the enemy” as “Kherson lay ahead”.
Russian officials have so far downplayed the extent of Ukraine’s counterattack around Kherson, amid conflicting claims about its scale.
Sergei Aksyonov, the Moscow-appointed governor of Crimea, wrote on Telegram that reports of the counterattack were “the latest fake from Ukrainian propaganda” and claimed Kyiv’s forces were in fact “taking extremely severe losses on the southern front as well as all the others”.
But in a sign that Ukraine was getting closer to major population centres, a senior official installed by Russia in Nova Kakhovka, a city east of Kherson, told state newswire RIA Novosti that he had ordered civilians to be evacuated into bomb shelters.
Air raid sirens and explosions could be heard in the city, Ukrainian television reported, citing local residents. Pro-Ukrainian channels on Telegram posted photos of what they said was a destroyed market following artillery strikes.
However, the governor of the neighbouring Ukraine-held region of Mykolayiv wrote in a Telegram post that several civilians had been killed in heavy shelling, an indication of Moscow’s capacity to push back against Ukrainian forces.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister and chair of the Centre for Defense Strategies think-tank, said that Ukraine “certainly plans to return Kherson in the very near future”.
He added: “It’s a complex task including multiple forces, tactical activities, which had needed patience and time to prepare.”
Ukraine has in recent months regularly shelled the bridges at Kherson and Nova Kakhovka, which link Russia’s occupying forces to supply lines on the eastern side of the Dnipro.
However, some Ukrainian officials also urged caution around the offensive. One reason is that Russia has doubled its troop presence in the region since Ukraine began talking about a possible counter-attack about a month ago.
At the time, there were about 13 Russian battalion tactical groups stationed in the Kherson region. This number has now risen to roughly 30, according to Rochan, an independent military consultancy based in Poland.