KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers, trying to thin out Russian forces, launched a counter-offensive on Sunday in Kherson, the main southern city Moscow deemed so safe it had introduced the ruble.
Ukraine’s attack on Kherson came as its forces fought desperately to fend off Russian attempts to capture and cut off a strategic swath of eastern Ukraine that has been central to Moscow’s struggling war effort, and it had As a result, the battlefield was expanded.
The opening of the new front underlined that when it comes to territory in Ukraine, there is little to hold on to as both sides seek to exploit the enemy’s evolving strategic vulnerabilities. That volatility only promises to increase as Ukraine receives more advanced long-range artillery, and possibly US missiles soon.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has asked for those weapons, tried to build morale by visiting the northeast of the country, near Kharkov, which is still under fire.
“I want to thank you all for your service,” said Mr. Zelensky against his troops, marking their success this month by pushing the Russians back from the outskirts of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city. “You risk your life for all of us and our state.”
According to Reuters, the city, which had been shelling for months that killed many civilians and forced tens of thousands to flee, was hit again just hours after Mr Zelensky left.
The announcement of the Ukrainian counter-offensive – “Hold on, Kherson, we are coming!” the army said Sunday morning: on Twitter — signaled what could turn out to be a new chapter in a war that has political, economic and humanitarian significance far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Kherson, a port city in Ukraine’s agricultural heartland, was the first major city to fall when Russian troops moved north from Crimea more than three months ago. After confiscating it, Moscow used the city as a staging area for operations in southern Ukraine.
But in recent weeks, Russian forces — stretched out and suffering heavy casualties as they gained ground in the eastern Donbas region — have concentrated their efforts in the south on strengthening defensive positions. Satellite images show Russians rushing to build fortifications in Kherson, where shots from an uprising surfaced this month.
It was not clear whether they were prepared for the Ukrainian counterattack.
The Ukrainian military headquarters said in a statement that its forces had broken through a Russian defense line and pushed the Russians into less favorable terrain near the villages of Andriyivka, Lozove and Belihorka. The counter-offensive also aimed to threaten Russia’s supply routes on bridges over the Dnipro River.
Ukraine had been telegraphing the counteroffensive for days, though it had said that such a maneuver would require Western artillery systems promised by the United States and other allies. It was unclear on Sunday which artillery Ukraine was using in its counteroffensive.
In a war that is increasingly becoming an arms race, powerful US howitzers reached Ukrainian forces this month, and Ukrainian forces recently received Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles from Denmark. Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said they would be used to break Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea and protect the port city of Odessa.
The Biden administration has also agreed to send multiple long-range missile systems to Ukraine, an important transfer that could greatly aid its defenses.
Whatever hardware it has on hand, Ukraine appeared to be sending a message to Russia on Sunday that it won’t just play as defense on a battlefield of Russia’s choice. Instead, Ukraine appears to be redrawing the map to include those places where the reduced and hard-hit Russian forces have dug into defensive positions.
Russia, after spectacularly failing to take Kiev, the capital, and Kharkiv, has narrowed its focus to the 75-mile eastern frontline in the slender eastern Donbas region. It has deployed most of its troops to pound eastern Ukraine and take Sievierodonetsk, the last Ukrainian-controlled city in the Luhansk region, which is now at the heart of the conflict.
President Zelensky described conditions in Sievierodonetsk last weekend as “indescribably difficult”. Ukrainians call the route to the city from the west the “road of life” because it is the only way to supply their soldiers there. Russia has attempted to close that road, and social media reports of burnt Russian armored vehicles on the highway indicated they had done so at least shortly before being rejected.
Ukrainian military officials posted on Facebook late Sunday that Russia was “trying to gain a foothold in the northeastern suburbs of the city of Sievierodonetsk and conducting strike operations toward the city center.”
Russia has used long-range artillery to crush targeted cities from a distance to subjugation before encircling and nibbling away the territory.
Russia has thermobaric warheads, a terrifying conventional weapon nicknamed the heat wave, which… shock waves in bunkers and trenches. It has also claimed to have successfully tested a hypersonic Zircon cruise missile from the Barents Sea on a target more than 620 miles away. Hypersonic weapons, generally defined as weapons capable of flying at speeds above Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — are at the center of an arms race between the United States, Russia and China.
As tactics, objectives and weapons change in the conflict, the human toll is a constant. The Ukrainian army said on Sunday that Moscow had ordered hospitals in Crimea to stop treating civilians and instead tend to wounded soldiers. The claim could not be independently verified.
Amid the loss of life and the destruction of civil society, European leaders are once again calling for a ceasefire.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said in a Kremlin statement that he was “open to renewed dialogue with Kiev”.
The statement described a telephone conversation he had with the leaders of France and Germany on Saturday. According to the Kremlin, Mr Putin said Western arms supplies could lead to “further destabilization of the situation”, and reiterated his demand that the West lift sanctions against Russia to facilitate the export of food and fertilizers.
President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany said any solution to the war between Moscow and Kiev must be negotiated “with respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to a statement from the French presidency’s office.
But Mykhaylo Podolyak, an aide to the Ukrainian president and envoy to peace talks held earlier in the three-month conflict, said in a Telegram message last weekend that Russia simply cannot be trusted.
“Any agreement with Russia is not worth a broken penny,” wrote Mr. Podolyak. Until Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine, he said, “negotiations will be conducted by a separate ‘delegation’ on the front line.”