As the Ukrainian army commences its counter-offensive in Kherson, this could be the battle that changes the course of the war. Why is Kherson so significant?
- Crimea has no source of freshwater itself, it comes from Kherson. For the Russians therefore to hold Crimea, they need to hold Kherson too, as otherwise if there is a drought, the region will destabilize.
- Kherson is the breadbasket of the country, where the best quality land for farming is. Approximately 20% of Ukraine’s agriculture is within the Kherson region. Similarly, by taking back Kherson, it will mean Ukraine can start shipping grain again at the level it was before.
- Kherson is the gateway to the Black Sea, both to the East and West. If the Ukrainians retake Kherson it means there is little chance of Odesa falling. Similarly, if the Ukrainians retake Kherson, it significantly improves their chances of taking back the coastline along the Sea of Azov. Or at the very least fortifying along the river allowing troops to be redeployed to other areas.
- In the context of the war, it will also send a message to the west, that with continued support, Ukraine can drive Russia back to its borders. In the USA, there is an election coming up in a few months, where there are voices already asking why so much is being spent on a country in another continent. If the Ukrainians can show they are winning, it will make it much easier for the next tranche of funding and military support to get approved.
- Similarly, for Putin, given the amount of prominence given to Kherson in the Russian media, it would be a humiliation for the Russian army if they were driven out and could lead to passive anti-war sentiment in the country becoming more proactive. Within the army already morale is going to be an issue, as newly enlisted soldiers are thrown into the front line with limited training or equipment.
In the here and now, given the Russian army garrisoned in the city is reliant on pontoon bridges to resupply, the big question is how they can avoid defeat. There is evidence emerging of Chechen troops stationed along the riverfront with orders to shoot any Russian soldiers trying to head east. That will not prevent mass surrender though.
If Ukraine does then take Kherson, what next? Arguably the most plausible scenario is the Ukrainian army looks to consolidate within the oblast, resulting in Crimea then being cut off for winter. From there, the target would be to destroy the Kurch Bridge. Do that, and the peninsula is probably impossible to hold. This will probably lead to the most dangerous and unpredictable phase of the war, given the Russian leadership’s stance toward Crimea.
However, for Ukraine, the prize is worth it. Take back Crimea and with that, have the territorial rights to the off-shore gas which is waiting to be extracted. The fields that exist there are almost as extensive as what Norway has, at a time when Russia has proven it is no longer a reliable energy supplier, and the EU and Germany need one more than anything. For Ukraine, a fast track to EU membership may hinge on them winning back Crimea.