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Russians, risking isolation in the south, build up for Ukrainian attack


People displaced from the war line up to receive free meals in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 27, 2022.

By Michael Schwirtz, Marc Santora, Matthew Moke Bigg, Maria Varenikova and Michael Levenson


Ukraine has warned that Russia is racing to bolster its troops and defenses in the south, and that Kyiv still needed more weapons from the West, creating a heightened sense of urgency before a looming counteroffensive to reclaim territory seized by Moscow.


The Ukrainians have been setting the stage for a broad counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region for weeks, and recent long-range rocket strikes have left thousands of Russian soldiers stationed west of the Dnieper River, in and around the port city of Kherson, in a precarious position, largely cut off from Russian strongholds to the east.


But Russia is now moving “the maximum number” of forces to the southern front in the Kherson region, head of Ukraine’s National Security Council told Ukrainian television late Wednesday. The official, Oleksiy Danilov, described “a very powerful movement of their troops” to the front in Kherson.


Although Western weapons have poured into the country, Ukraine said more arms were still needed and ammunition remained limited. Some Ukrainian officials have grown increasingly frustrated with what they believe is the slow pace of weapons deliveries from Western allies. Donor nations are training Ukrainian soldiers to use the new equipment, but that, too, remains a work in progress.


“Just give them weapons and let them work,” said Natalya Gumenyuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, which is responsible for the Kherson offensive. “They pat us on the shoulder and say, ‘Just hang on.’ We need more than just moral support, though we are grateful for it. We need real support, real weapons, real ammunition for those weapons.”


Marking a national holiday Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy forcefully defended his country’s sovereignty and independence, rejecting the notion advanced by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine is a recent fiction that rightfully belongs to Russia.


“Every day, we fight so that everyone on the planet finally understands: We are not a colony, not an enclave, not a protectorate,” Zelenskyy said. “Not a gubernia, an eyalet or a crown land, not a part of foreign empires, not a ‘part of the land,’ not a union republic. Not an autonomy, not a province, but a free, independent, sovereign, indivisible and independent state.”


In Kherson, which the Russians captured quickly after invading in late February, they have had months to fortify their defensive lines, and the Ukrainians have yet to launch any major land-based counteroffensive.


“Of course, we are waiting for the command to attack, but it’s not really that simple,” said Senior Sgt. Oleksandr Babynets, 28, a member of the Ukrainian 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade, which is dug in along the Kherson region’s western border.


“The Russians have organized defensive lines, dug in and deployed a lot of weaponry,” he said. “We don’t just want to go ahead and die just like that. We need to work intelligently.”


In the past month, with most Russian forces tied down in the battles far to the east, in the Donbas region, Ukrainian forces in the south have managed to force Moscow’s troops back a few miles in the direction of Kherson. At their closest, along the Kherson region’s western border, they are about 30 miles from the city. There, the lines have largely frozen as each army jockeys for advantage.


As the counteroffensive brews, Russia has renewed attacks on the north — launching strikes from the Black Sea, Belarus and Russia — that injured at least 15 people in the region of the capital, Kyiv, the Ukrainian authorities said Thursday. The attacks were the first in weeks to hit the capital region, which the initial Russian offensive failed to capture early in the war.


“Not a calm morning,” Zelenskyy said in a video address. “Missile terror again. We will not give up.”


There were at least 20 Russian strikes, with Kalibr cruise missiles launched from warships on the Black Sea, Iskander ballistic missiles from southern Belarus and rockets fired by fighter jets from Russian territory, said a spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force, Yuriy Ihnat.


Five strikes hit the Kyiv region, disturbing a tenuous sense of normalcy that had taken hold after Russian forces withdrew from the region starting in late March, repulsed by Ukraine’s tenacious defense that caused heavy Russian losses.


Halyna Serhienko, who lives in Vyshhorod, a Kyiv suburb, said her 5-year-old daughter was particularly frightened.


“All our house was shaking,” Serhienko said.


Ukrainians believe the most promising front for a major advance lies in the western part of Kherson, where Ukrainian forces have launched recent strikes to cut off Russians troops from their supply lines across the Dnieper River, which bisects Ukraine and the Kherson region.


Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts said several strikes this week on a key bridge across the Dnieper and other critical roads and bridges in recent days had left Russian forces around Kherson city particularly exposed.


A British intelligence report said Thursday that Russia’s main fighting force on the western side of the river “now looks highly vulnerable” because of the strikes on the bridge.


“Kherson city, the most politically significant population center occupied by Russia, is now virtually cut off from the other occupied territories,” the report said. “Its loss would severely undermine Russia’s attempts to paint the occupation as a success.”


The Russians, however, appear to be trying to build another crossing over the river. Yuri Sobolevsky, a regional official in Kherson, wrote on Facebook on Thursday that four tugboats were pulling pontoons across the Dnieper, although he asserted that a floating bridge would not help the Russians resupply their troops.


Serhii Khlan, head of the Ukrainian military administration in Kherson, predicted that the Russians would fail because of “the raging flow of the river, which makes it impossible to build the crossings.”


The Russians may also try to ferry equipment across the river, he said, but an announcement by local officials in Kherson loyal to Moscow that there would be no humanitarian shipments for at least three days underscored the depth of their dilemma.


The military maneuvers came as Ukrainians paused Thursday to celebrate a new national holiday, Day of Statehood, which was created last summer as the threat of a Russian invasion menaced the country.


Ukraine chose the date to mark what is known as “the baptism of Rus,” when Great Prince Volodymyr of Kyivan Rus, the first Slavic state, converted to Christianity in the 10th century and began converting his people. That event, and Volodymyr himself, are claimed by both Russia and Ukraine as central to their national identities.

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