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DNIPRO, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces have made significant gains in recent weeks, retaking large swathes of Ukrainian territory to the east and northeast. But now they are preparing for what could be one of their toughest battles yet: for the strategically important southern city of Kherson.
“Russians know how to fight,” says Major Roman Kovalev. “They’re learning fast. They’re not the same forces as in the spring. It’s hard to fight them.”
Kovalev is leading a newly reconfigured 500-strong battalion to the front lines starting next week.
As he spoke at a military camp outside Dnipro, dozens of new soldiers and more experienced officers made their way through a large field of grass during a training exercise at a camp from eastern Ukraine.
He tells his soldiers – and everyone who listens to him – that Russian forces will not be underprepared. The Russians have learned that the Ukrainians can fight, he says, which has caused them to rethink their earlier efforts to take large chunks of territory quickly.
“They are changing tactics,” he said. “They are moving more cautiously, trying to take our land one piece at a time.”
Retaking Kherson would thwart Russia’s goal of cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea
Oleksandr Musienko, a Kyiv-based military expert, says there is a lot at stake in Kherson. For the Ukrainians, retaking this regional capital would be huge for morale – and a strategic victory. It would also set the stage for retaking parts of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, including a Russian-controlled nuclear power plant.
And it would be devastating for Russia, which claimed to formally annex Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as well as two other territories of Ukraine last month.
“If we disoccupy Kherson, we will destroy Russian plans to advance to Kryvyi Rih, Mykolaiv or Odessa,” Musienko said.
This would not only be a blow to Russian plans to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, but would also be a terrible embarrassment for Moscow, he said.
“It would be huge, really huge,” Major Hryhoriy Havrysh said of Kherson’s recovery. “Kherson is symbolic for the south.”
But as eager as the Ukrainians are to retake it, Havrysh knows the Russians won’t relinquish control without a hard fight.
“We made progress. They reacted,” he said. “And now we have to create new opportunities.”
Moscow-appointed officials in Kherson began fleeing to Russia
Some of the newly mobilized Russian conscripts were sent to help in Kherson. Local officials installed by Moscow are also building territorial defense units – and encouraging male volunteers to join them.
“Everything is under control,” Kirill Stremousov, the region’s Russia-based deputy administrator, said in a public post on social media and messaging app Telegram.
Stremousov is trying to paint a picture that the Russians are keeping the Ukrainians at bay. Meanwhile, Moscow-appointed city officials flee to Russia.
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Four explosions of grenade launchers shake the ground where Kovalev’s soldiers are advancing. He laughs when asked about the new Russian conscripts.
“Let them all come. The more there are, the more will remain here,” he said, implying that those who fight against Ukraine will also die in Ukraine.
For him, the battle of Kherson is personal. After Kherson, Ukrainians can look to an even bigger prize: the Crimean Peninsula, where Kovalev grew up. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
It’s been eight years since Kovalev went to his hometown of Sevastopol, along the Black Sea coast.
“Sometimes I dream about it,” he says. “I dream of the sea. I dream of my hometown. My soul is there.”
He intends to see him again soon, he says: “I believe it will happen.”