February 3, 2023

Ukraine this week bombed a bridge vital to Russian soldiers occupying the city of Kherson.

Ukrainian troops fired on the Antonovsky Bridge from Tuesday to Wednesday with US-supplied missiles targeting a main crossing connecting Kherson to the south bank of the Dnipro River and the rest of the region, now almost entirely controlled by Russia.

British defense officials said the city is now “virtually cut off from other occupied territories,” the statement said BBC reported.

Ukrainian forces used the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), supplied by the United States and notable for their precision strikes, to target the bridge.

To counter the effects of Ukraine’s strikes on supply chain problems, Russia has used and floated bridges, said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Ukraine-Russia conflict at the University of Glasgow. However, these structures are much more fragile and narrow than traditional bridges, delaying the arrival of supplies, he said.

Strategically located between the Dnipro River and the Black Sea to the west, Kherson became the first Ukrainian city to fall under Russian control in March.

While the Antonovsky Bridge is the main gateway to Kherson from the south, Ukrainian troops also shelled a smaller bridge 70km northeast of the city. According to Sim Tack, an analyst with the conflict-monitoring company Force Analysis, this second bridge is a major access route that will allow the passage of Russian troops and supplies from Nova Kakhovka, another city in Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine.

The Antonovsky Bridge (top right) is a crucial link between Kherson and the Russian-occupied territories to the south. © Google Earth

Although the Ukrainian attacks did not destroy the bridge, Tack said the damage caused will limit throughput to light vehicles and heavier supply trucks will be cut off from Russian troops on the ground.

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A prelude to the main event?

Some analysts have described the bridge strikes as a possible prelude to a larger Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russian forces weakened by the lack of supplies.

Ultimately, though, Kherson cannot be recaptured by bombing bridges alone, said Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation and a Russian military expert.

“At some point, troops will have to enter the city,” Grant said.

Aliyev said Ukraine should also ensure that its own troops are in good shape for any future offensive, including the prospect of street fighting to retake the city. He said Ukraine should be sure to keep casualties to a minimum, especially among the region’s best-equipped and trained troops.

Methodically bombing Russian entry points to the city will “decrease the tenability of their position,” Tack said, potentially forcing Russian troops to withdraw, leaving only a small group of soldiers to cover their retreat.

The critical role of HIMARS

The Ukrainian plan is to use the HIMARS to attack Russian command centers and ammunition depots, forcing a withdrawal, leading to a breakdown in communications and the supply chain, Aliyev said. Such a goal would have been unattainable without the US-supplied HIMARS, which is far more accurate than any other artillery in the Ukrainian arsenal.

In fact, receiving the HIMARS – a weapons system that some have said could be a “game changer” in the conflict – be able to have had a lot to do with Ukraine’s decision to launch a counter-offensive in the Kherson region in the first place, Aliyev said.

Tack agreed that without the HIMARS it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to aim the bridge with such accuracy. Ukrainian troops would have needed much more time and ammunition to achieve the same results if they had used traditional artillery, he said.

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The HIMARS could even allow Kiev to avoid a direct confrontation with the more numerous Russian army.

Russian forces have positioned ammunition depots and command structures outside traditional artillery range. But HIMARS has a range of 80 km, twice as far as all the missiles used on the Ukrainian frontline to date, Grant said.

Ukraine is therefore progressing slowly but surely. Grant described the Ukrainian counterattack as coming in fits and starts, with the defending troops circling like hunting dogs ready to attack weakened prey.

Turning point?

Thanks to the Ukrainian army’s earlier strategy, it has already been able to recapture several villages. However, the conquest of Kherson would “probably mark a turning point,” Grant said.

Kherson is the only regional capital outside of Russian-controlled Donbas. Moscow has gone to great lengths to “Russify” the city, install an occupation administration and establish the ruble as the “official” currency. The Kremlin has also encouraged Russian officials to move there and plans to hold a referendum on join Russia.

If Kiev recaptures Kherson, it would be impossible for Moscow to continue to pretend that all is well in Ukraine, Aliyev said. It would also give Ukraine a strategic edge, as the country would regain access to several ports on the Black Sea that could facilitate grain exports.

Grant agreed, saying that losing Kherson would be a huge morale blow to an already unmotivated Russian army.

In addition, Russian troops would be exiled to the other side of the Dnipro River, providing the Ukrainians with a natural line of protection. Kiev could then free up some troops in the region and redeploy them to other fronts, such as Donbas or Zaporizhzhya, Tack said.

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Moscow is aware of the risk it faces, which may be part of why Russia succumbed to its Donbas operation.

According to Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Moscow is “transferring as many troops as possible” to Kherson.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.