One way or another, according to Ukraine’s leadership, it’s bound to happen.

Even though the Battle of Donbas is far from over, Ukraine is expected to open the next chapter of the war sometime in the near future — a highly anticipated, major counter-offensive operation in the south, particularly to liberate the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.

Kyiv has declared its intentions to liberate the only regional capital captured by Russia following the Feb. 24 full-scale invasion

Experts across the world agree that retaking Kherson is the most feasible way for Ukraine to score a major victory over Russia and turn the tide of the war. As part of a counter-offensive operation, Ukraine would likely seek to block the occupied city, cut the Russian garrison off from supplies and reinforcements, and hold the blockade until Russia surrenders. 

This would be a daring mission, demanding the most effective contribution of all components ranging from infantry to air defense and counter-battery activity. 

Thanks to local terrain and Russian military flaws, Ukraine’s plan may in fact be realistic. 

But in order to carry it out, Ukraine’s military would have to demonstrate excellent coordination of war power and do the difficult work of clearing the area of Russian forces, supply lines, and ammunition depots — before going in.

Rush to the south

Ukraine lost Kherson as early as March 2, amid little armed resistance, as Ukraine’s defenses in the south quickly collapsed to Russia’s heavy blitz. 

Now, after over 140 days of war, Russia claims Kherson Oblast is “full-fledged Russian territory,” and is threatening to stage a “referendum,” thereby annexing yet another Ukrainian region like it did with Crimea in 2014.

According to Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, President Volodymyr Zelensky has already charged the military with a mission to establish a plan to de-occupy Ukraine’s south, as its seaside regions are vital to the national economy.

Ukraine has already launched campaigns in Kherson Oblast as a counterweight to Russia’s large-scale offensive in Donbas. As a result, Ukraine has liberated a total of 44 villages and towns, according to Ukraine’s local military-civilian administration in Kherson Oblast. 

But these campaigns don’t have much to show for themselves. Among experts polled by the Kyiv Independent, these Ukrainian operations carried out by small groups were more attempts to probe Russian defenses and keep Russian forces away from Donbas rather than operations to make substantial territorial gains. 

As of now, the 200-kilometer-long Kherson frontline bordering Mykolaiv Oblast is being held by considerably depleted parts of Russia’s 49th Combined Arms Army, including elite airborne units, the 22nd Army Corps, and units with Rosgvardiya. 

According to estimates, Russia may have deployed at least over 10 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) to the area.

This is likely Russia’s least saturated front-line sector since Russia has given the top priority to hostilities in Donbas, where it has deployed nearly 50 BTGs within the most crucial zone between Izium and Bakhmut.

Nonetheless, Russia is beefing up its defenses in the south as Kherson becomes an increasingly obvious target for a Ukrainian counter-strike beyond Donbas. On July 12, social media users and local media in occupied Melitopol posted videos showing “an endless” Russian military column moving towards Kherson. 

Recently, open-source monitors have also indicated a growing number of poorly-trained troops mobilized in occupied Donbas and deployed to Kherson, which may indicate an ongoing lack of manpower. 

This is one of the favoring factors behind a potential Ukrainian counter-offensive. 

“Russians are not capable of completely securing the whole duration of the giant frontline in Kherson,” said Kirill Mikhailov of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an open-source investigative project. 

“They can’t have a wholesome line of trenches. The best they can have is strong points in certain populated areas or road junctions. In many cases, they will not be able to coordinate their actions. And Ukraine will have the opportunity of picking them off one by one.” 

“Nor is Russia capable of sending quick reinforcements to the area, as they would have to drastically reduce or even abandon their offensive in Donbas.”

The Kherson frontline, distinct from concentrated Donbas, is rather loose and porous, which would allow Ukrainian advance parties to break through it. 

“I will not be surprised if it turns out that Ukrainian scout groups infiltrate the Russian-held zone to probe their defenses and see how deep it is possible to go,” said Igal Levin, a Ukraine-born Israeli defense expert. 

“Ukrainian infantry has so far been good at carrying out operations in smaller units.”