Ukraine increased, on Wednesday, the bombing of an important bridge for the supply of Russian troops, which occupied the city of Kherson. The battle for control of the eponymous region could have a major impact on the outcome of the war.
It is a strategic bridge for reaching a city that is equally strategic. The Ukrainian army bombed, on the night of Tuesday July 26 to Wednesday July 27, the Antonovsky bridge that connects the city of Kherson to the southern bank of the Dnieper and the rest of this region that is mostly controlled by Russia.
This is not the first time Ukraine has targeted the structure, in what increasingly looks like preparations to launch an offensive to retake the southern Ukrainian city. Rockets had already destroyed the Antonovsky Bridge for the first time on July 19, prompting warnings from Russian military commentators about the risk of seeing troops stationed in Kherson cut off from supply lines.
Antonovsky Bridge can be seen
“The occupants [russes] must learn to swim to cross the Dnieper River. Or if they don’t agree to leave Kherson while they have the chance”, wrote on Twitter Wednesday July 27 Mykhaïlo Podoliakadviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The salvos launched on Wednesday did not destroy the Antonovsky bridge, but the holes caused by the rockets meant that “only light vehicles can still circulate there and Russian forces in the area have closed the access to trucks that ensure the delivery of supplies,” summarized Sim Tack, a military analyst for Forces Analysis, a conflict monitoring company.
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Ukrainians are not only focused on the Antonovsky Bridge. The latter – in its length (1.4 km) – represents the main gate of Kherson from the south, but “the Ukrainian army also blew up another small bridge in the northeast of Kherson overlooking a arm of the Dnieper River,” said Sim Tack.
This is another important gateway to the city for the Russians. There they “passed the supplies and the troops arriving from Nova Kharkova”, explained the military analyst. This city on the southern bank of the Dnieper more than 70 km east of Kherson is home to the second bridge connecting the two banks of the river.
Attrition instead of direct confrontation
The Ukrainians are reluctant to attack this crossing point directly because “it is adjacent to a major power plant and the risk of damaging it is very high”, stated Sim Tack.
The Russian army understood the purpose of the Ukrainian maneuver and “they are building and using pontoon bridges to reduce the risk of running out of supplies”, said Aliyev Huseyn, specialist in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict at the University of Glasgow. But these structures are “weaker and narrower than traditional bridges, which means that the delivery of supplies will be made much slower”, estimates this expert.
But Kherson could not be recaptured just by bombing the bridges. “At some point, the troops will have to enter the city,” confirmed Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation and specialist in Russian military issues.
This is why most of the media described these bombings as a start before the main course of a broad offensive in Ukraine against Russian troops weakened by a lack of supplies.
But this scenario, which will involve major and possibly bloody clashes in the streets of Kherson, is not favored by experts interviewed by France 24. “The priority of the Ukrainian army is to minimize the loss of people as much as possible, especially because the troops gathered in this region are one of the best equipped and ready and kyiv has no desire to sacrifice anything if there is a way to do something else”, summarizes Aliyev Huseyn.
“Ukraine will instead rely on attrition, continuing methodical bombing of the city’s access points until the Russians are forced to withdraw most of their troops due to lack of necessary supplies. Then they will return to the city where they only have to deal with the forces left to cover the retreat of the Russian soldiers”, explained Sim Tack.
The essential role of the Himars rocket launcher
A more patient strategy to limit human losses “which would not be possible without the American Himars”, assures Aliyev Huseyn. These rocket launchers are more accurate than the artillery used by the Ukrainian army. “To get the same targeted damage on the bridges, the Ukrainians need more ammo, and time with their traditional artillery, so this method probably won’t work,” said Sim Tack.
Indeed, the Himars – described in several articles in the international press as weapons “that can make a difference” – “probably played a large part in the Ukrainian decision to launch a more general counter-offensive in the region . [région administrative] in Kherson”, judge Aliyev Huseyn.
They allow kyiv to avoid the much feared direct confrontation with a numerically superior Russian army as much as possible. “Ukrainian strategy is to first use Himars to attack deep into Russian command centers and ammunition depots to force them to retreat, leading to disruption of communications and supply chains “, Aliyev Huseyn details.
It would be impossible to pursue such a goal without the new American equipment. “All the Russians have done so far is set up ammunition depots and commandeers from the range of traditional Ukrainian artillery,” Glen Grant said. But the American Himars have a range of 80 km, at least double the range of other rocket launchers used in the front.
Which means that the Ukrainian army is advancing slowly but surely. “It gave the impression of a counter-attack that was carried out precisely and started, with the Ukrainians behaving like hunting dogs on the prowl and ready to pounce as soon as they sensed the enemy’s weakness”, described by Glen Grant.
Towards a “turning point in the war”?
This strategy has already enabled Ukraine to take back some villages and “also to develop in the north of the Kherson region around the town of Vysokopillya”, stressed Sim Tack.
But the capture of Kherson “perhaps represents a turning point in the war”, believes Glen Grant. This city, in fact, is the only Ukrainian regional capital outside the Donbass in the hands of Russia. Moscow is spreading significant means to “russify” this city, installing work authorities there, establishing the ruble as the “official” currency and encouraging officials to go there to ensure the continuity of the state.
If Ukraine evicts the Russians from Kherson “it will be impossible for Moscow to continue to pretend that everything is fine in Ukraine,” said Aliyev Huseyn. Such a defeat would represent “a blow to the morale of a Russian army that is no longer highly motivated”, pointed out Glen Grant.
This could give the Ukrainian army a decisive advantage in the entire region. If kyiv regains the entire oblast, “the country will again have access to many Black Sea ports that will facilitate the export of grain to Ukraine”, said Aliyev Huseyn.
More importantly, Russia will be moved to the other side of the Dnieper River, giving the Ukrainian army a natural line of defense. “Kyiv may release some of the troops mobilized in this region to transfer them to other fronts, such as Donbass or Zaporijjia region”, assured Sim Tack.
Moscow is not aware of this risk and this, perhaps, is partly the reason why Russia has slowed down its war effort in Donbass. Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the Council of defense and national security of Ukraine, confirmed that Moscow redeployed the largest number of troops” towards Kherson.