In Kherson, Ukrainian military offensive aims to retake occupied lands

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KHERSON REGION, Ukraine – The Ukrainian military has left Ukrainians and the world guessing about the counter-offensive it claims to have launched in this Russian-occupied territory, but Oleksander Skovorodka is already feeling a shift.

The 32-year-old resident of Kamyane, a village surrounded by Russian troops, said the pitch of artillery salvos from both directions has increased. He and his neighbors have seen Ukrainian attack helicopters buzzing the treetops on their way south. On Wednesday evening, Ukrainian military vehicles drove on the dirt road in the northwest corner of the region, where he and his wife Taisia ​​were on their way to buy food.

“We can hear more fighting, more shelling,” he said. “The Russians just got there.”

The track is one of the routes that will allow them to avoid areas controlled by the Russian invaders, who now occupy almost the entire strategically vital area of ​​11,000 square miles, including the capital, the Black Sea port city of Kherson.

The track passes through forests and meadows and leads to a makeshift gravel and pipe bridge over the Inhulets River, which separates Kherson from the Ukraine-controlled regions to the north and west. In recent days, Kherson residents have used the crossing to flee the fighting, most of them heading for the nearby town of Kryvyi Rih.

“They cross every day,” said Oleksander Pokusayev, who lives in the neighboring village of Shestirnya, just inside free Ukraine. He had ridden his Soviet-era Voskhod motorcycle to the Kherson side of the bridge, where he fishes regularly. “I saw two minibuses full of people earlier today,” he said.

With the only official crossing point more than 100 miles to the north in Zaporizhzhya – a deserted village where access is controlled by hostile armies on either side of a tense no-man’s land – evacuees are increasingly forced to find other options. Some swim in the Inhulets, which Pokusayev’s sister-in-law did when she fled the Russian occupiers in the village of Borozenske.

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“She had to walk through forests for two days. She swam across and Ukrainian soldiers helped her to safety,” he said. “Her husband is still in the occupied side.”

While he was talking, a Ukrainian patrol passed by and stopped to check the safety of four Washington Post reporters. Due to the offensive and increasing maneuvers from both sides, Ukrainian soldiers said the Kherson side of the river was becoming increasingly unsafe.

“It’s very risky here now,” said one soldier, asking not to be identified by name or unit. “The Russians are very close and their weapons are not very accurate. Their missiles can go anywhere.”

Kherson was the first strategically important city captured by Russia at the start of the invasion in late February, and the wider Kherson region is helping form Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coveted “land bridge” to Crimea, which Russia would join in 2014. invaded and annexed.

Residents of the area have seen control of villages in Kherson sway back and forth. After the Russians captured many of the communities in the early weeks of the invasion, Ukrainian forces pushed over the Inhulets in May and liberated some of them. Ukrainian forces used Pokusayev’s village as a base for shelling for more than a month prior to that attack.

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Now residents hope the new offensive will push the Russians out of artillery range. So far, however, the shelling has only gotten worse.

“They still hit a lot of houses; they’re trying to hit the church,” he said, pointing to the golden dome visible across the river. “My house has been shot at twice.”

For months, Western intelligence and military analysts have said Ukraine was preparing a major campaign to retake Kherson and the surrounding area. A gateway between the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, the regional capital is an important economic center.

Ukraine hopes that retaking the region from the Russians – who reportedly planned to hold a referendum prior to its annexation as part of Russia – will give impetus to what has become a stalemate war.

It is unclear whether the operation launched on Monday is the predicted large-scale campaign.

Information from within Kherson was scarce. Military officials have denied reporters access to frontline areas across the country until at least Monday, a level of restrictions unprecedented in the six months since the Russian attack began. They have asked the Ukrainians to be patient and warned that operational security means that information about the campaign will be slow to come out.

“It will take as long as it takes and no one will rush it because people expect something dramatic and exciting,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who now heads the Center for Defense Strategies, a military think tank in Kiev. “They will do it safely, however long it takes,” Zagorodnyuk said.

Ukrainian officials said “heavy fighting” was raging in the region and that their forces had destroyed numerous weapons depots and command posts. At the start of the campaign, Ukraine said it had demolished major bridges across the Dnieper, cutting off Russian supply routes.

Russia has acknowledged that a major campaign is underway but said it has already taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian lives, tanks and equipment. Wounded soldiers are reported to have arrived in Mykolaiv, a coastal town just outside the region’s western border.

A Pentagon official on Monday confirmed an “increase” in fighting in Kherson, including artillery and missile strikes, but could not confirm that a major counteroffensive was underway.

The information vacuum has left Kherson residents scrambling in and out of the area to learn more. In Kryvyi Rih, where the city government has set up 89 shelters to house more than 35,000 evacuees from Kherson, people fleeing the fighting are scrolling through Telegram channels and chat groups to find out what’s happening at home.

Svetlana Kulybanych, 60, and her family live in an orphanage in Kryvyi Rih that has been converted into a shelter. She regularly calls one of the few friends who has remained in their hometown of Nova Kakhovka, 40 miles from the city of Kherson.

Something big is definitely going on, the friend reported Wednesday.

“She said that the Ukrainians are shelling the city and that they have destroyed many depots and places where the Russians have stored their equipment,” Kulybanych said. “Now the Russians are hiding between the buildings.”

If this is Ukraine’s major push to oust the Russians, Kulybanych prays that the troops will soon be victorious. She and her husband, who is recovering from a heart attack he had on the day of the invasion, want to go home.

“We want to start rebuilding while we’re still young and strong enough to do it,” she said.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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