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The War in Ukraine: Heading South?

04 Aug 2022
By Professor Tracey German
Mykolaiv after Russian shelling, 2022-07-05.
Source: State Emergency Service of Ukraine, Wikimedia,

As the war in Ukraine continues, there are growing fears that Russia will annex areas in the nation’s south. The coming winter will present even greater challenges for the European states supporting Ukraine.

As the war in Ukraine enters its sixth month, the departure of a ship carrying grain from Odesa to Lebanon was celebrated as a major milestone, the first vessel to have sailed since the invasion began on 24 February and Russia began blockading Ukrainian ports. In a reminder of the brutality of this war, the shipment took place only hours after Oleksiy Vadatursky, the owner of grain-exporting company Nibulon, and his wife Raisa were killed in heavy Russian shelling of the southern city of Mykolaiv. At the same time, President Volodymyr Zelensky has told all civilians still living in those areas of the eastern Donetsk region that remain under Ukrainian control to leave, in order to minimise casualties as the Russian forces continue their slow, destructive offensive.

Since Russia refocused its efforts on the Donbas in the east of Ukraine – after the failure of its initial invasion – progress has been slow and difficult for both Ukrainian and Russian forces. Russia made incremental gains in the Donbas throughout July, eventually taking the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, the last remaining urban centres in the eastern Luhansk region to fall, bringing the Kremlin closer to its stated goal of “liberating” the Donbas. President Putin has subsequently decorated two commanders of the Luhansk offensive – Colonel General Lapin and Major General Abachev – with the honorary title “Hero of the Russian Federation,” the country’s highest award.

Impact of Western Weapons

The war has become attritional, with large-scale artillery, rocket, and missile strikes causing widespread destruction and depleting both sides. Russia’s traditional reliance on artillery and an attritional approach has been very damaging for Ukrainian forces. The psychological effect of artillery fires is perceived to be as great as the physical effect and therefore they constitute part of Russian tactics to demoralise and undermine their adversary’s will to resist. However, each side faces different challenges: Russia continues to face manpower issues, whilst Ukraine has faced shortages of weapons and military equipment. Ukraine’s supply of Western weapons and equipment, in particular the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW), have proved critical in countering the Russian offensive.

In recent weeks, the arrival of the advanced High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), provided by the US, has had a significant impact on the battlefield, enabling Ukrainian forces to target Russian ammunition depots in the occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine, in an attempt to undermine Russia’s artillery advantage. Ukrainian forces also used HIMARS to target the Antonivskyi Bridge, the principal crossing across the Dnieper River in the southern Kherson region, cutting a vital supply link for Russian forces occupying the south of Ukraine and leaving them vulnerable to any Ukrainian counterattack.

Shifting South?

The targeting of the Antonivskyi Bridge reflects a shift in focus to the south of the country, amid rumours of a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive around the city of Kherson. According to Ukraine, Russia has been moving forces from the eastern Donbas area of operations to the south, particularly around the Zaporizhzhia front. Kherson is strategically significant: the first Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces following the February invasion, it is an important port city (Ukraine’s largest river port) and industrial centre, yet also a major water source for Crimea.

Since occupying the city (and the entire Kherson region) in mid-March, Russia has replaced legitimately elected local officials with “military-civil administrations” and there are growing fears that Moscow is preparing to annex areas of Ukraine currently occupied by Russian forces, including Kherson. According to a spokesman for the US National Security Council, Russia plans to hold “sham” referenda in the autumn of this year and will then establish the rouble as the currency and compel residents to apply for Russian citizenship, mirroring events in Crimea in March 2014.

If Russia does annex these areas, it will become much harder for Ukraine to regain control of them, hence it looks increasingly likely that a Ukrainian counter-offensive is imminent to preclude possible annexation. There are also concerns about the durability of Western support, both politically and, crucially, regarding the supply of weapons: if more Ukrainian territory is annexed, will Kyiv come under pressure to agree to a cease-fire?

Winter is Coming…..

Russia has yet to deploy the full force of its energy weapon against European states and, with winter coming, there are questions about the ability of countries to endure the consequences of any Russian shut-off of natural gas supplies. Many countries are already struggling with the widespread impact of soaring prices on their economies and societies: Germany, Europe’s largest economy, runs the risk of a significant economic decline if gas supplies from Russia dry up. The difficult choices for European leaders are yet to come: will the unity of the collective West continue to hold in the depths of winter if Russia turns the gas off? Will European leaders be willing (and able) to endure power blackouts, economic crisis and popular discontent? Putin appears determined to stay the course in Ukraine, likely calculating that Western interest and support for Ukraine, as well as its collective unity, will run out long before Russia’s ability to sustain its offensive.

Professor Tracey German is a Reader in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. Her research focuses on Russian foreign and security policies, particularly Russia’s use of force in the post-Soviet space, conflict and security in the Caucasus and Caspian regions, and the impact of NATO/EU enlargement on Russia’s relations with its neighbours.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.