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Battle on the Dnieper River could be decisive

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Kyiv, July 31: Almost 80 years ago, the Red Army suffered huge losses as it pushed the German Wehrmacht back across the Dnieper River in what was then Soviet Ukraine. After its defeat at Stalingrad in early February 1943, Nazi Germany and its Romanian allies initially held on to the Panther-Wotan defensive line, but by November the Soviets had managed to establish themselves along a 450-kilometer (270-mile) stretch west of the river. During months of fighting, about 1.2 million Soviet soldiers were killed or injured.

Battle on the Dnieper River could be decisive

Those experiences may well be playing a role in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's daily video messages. The invading army is often referred to as "Russian fascists." After weeks preparing, Zelenskyy has stepped up the counteroffensive in southern Ukraine to retake the area around the city of Kherson from the Russian occupiers. He says a million troops have massed, though this cannot be independently verified. The Russian army had up to 150,000 soldiers stationed in the region when it invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Major turning point

The battle along the Dnieper River, which is over 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) wide in parts of southern Ukraine, marked a major turning point 80 years ago — and the outcome of the current battle could end up being equally decisive. Russian soldiers have held Kherson, which has a population of 300,000, since shortly after the invasion began.

Ukraine war rages despite EU's Russia sanctions

Michael Kofman, the research director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses in the US state of Virginia, said a successful counteroffensive at this point could thwart further Russian offensives in the direction of the port of Odesa.

With targeted attacks using the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), the Ukrainian army is trying to set a strategic course. If the counteroffensive is a success, Ukraine will be able to claim a victory as important as when it was able to push the Russian army out of the northeastern city of Kharkiv, which is home to more than 1 million people. But, should Russian forces hold out, it would be a major blow to Ukraine and could even cost the country a great deal of international support.

Whatever happens, the government in Kyiv has the people of Kherson on its side. After the invasion in February, many inhabitants took to the streets each day to protest — shouting that the city is Ukrainian and telling the Russian occupiers to go home.

Counteroffensive gathers momentum

As of late July, Ukraine's army had been able to do serious damage to three key bridges in the region, which have been important for supplying Russia's 49th Army. A HIMARS attack targeting the Antonivka Road Bridge overnight on July 26 was apparently decisive. The structure was reportedly so damaged that heavy equipment can no longer cross.

Though reports by the warring parties are difficult to independently verify, videos posted on social networks after the attack showed that Russia had set up a ferry service. It would also have been easy for Ukraine to hit this target.

Battle on the Dnieper River could be decisive

"Ukraine's counteroffensive in Kherson is gathering momentum," Britain's Defence Ministry announced in an intelligence update in which it reported that Russia's 49th Army looked "highly vulnerable." According to the ministry, the city is "now virtually cut off from the other occupied territories." The loss of Kherson "would severely undermine Russia's attempts to paint the occupation as a success," the ministry reported.

Other videos on social media showed Russia apparently deploying heavy equipment toward Kherson as a response.

'Element of surprise'

In Kyiv, Zelenskyy advisor Mykhailo Podolyak seems confident. He told DW that, much in the way Russia had abandoned the Black Sea Snake Island, from which the sea route toward the Bosporus Strait can be controlled, it could leave Kherson as a "gesture of goodwill."

But Russia's army is also capable of targeted strikes in southern Ukraine, as Simon Ostrovsky, a correspondent for the US broadcaster PBS, reported after a recent visit. He said several secret bases, warehouses and supply dumps used by the Ukrainian army in the city of Mykolaiv had been hit. "Russia's own barrage of missile attacks on Ukraine appears to be well-targeted and very damaging — not just to civilians, but also to [Ukraine's] war effort," Ostrovsky said.

Kofman said it was difficult to predict what would happen. "I believe that Ukraine right now likely has a window of opportunity," he said. "They feel they have a window of opportunity." And, he added, "I think that Ukraine definitely has the possibility of conducting a successful offensive. But he also said Ukraine could lose the advantage if it failed to make use of the "element of surprise."

The Kherson region is not only of great strategic significance: It is also key economically. Wheat for the global market is grown here, and sunflower oil is produced. Ukraine accuses Russia of stealing half a million tons of grain, as well as fertilizer and tens of thousands of tons of sunflower oil. Using GPS trackers, Kyiv was able to prove that Russian troops had also stolen high-quality agricultural machinery from the area.

If Ukraine is not able to regain control of the fertile region, it will struggle to survive. It needs to drive Russia out from Kherson, across the Dnieper River and eastward, to sever the land link to Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in violation of international law in 2014.

In his video messages, President Zelenskyy says the turning point Ukrainians have been waiting for has arrived — and he is calling for heavy weapons from the US and EU.

Anna Fil contributed to this article.

Source: DW

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