The strategy holds much risk but, if successful, would improve Kyiv’s ability to defend its country, win foreign support and potentially negotiate better terms of an eventual peace deal.
has for weeks repeatedly outlined his goal of retaking Kherson, and Ukrainian troops have openly targeted local bridges and other infrastructure the Russians are using to supply and reinforce the area.
Russia has responded by strengthening its presence in and around Kherson, potentially readying for large-scale battles. It has moved troops from Donbas, where Moscow gained territory over recent months using artillery-led thrusts often referred to as an “assault fist” to punch through defenses.
Around Kherson, Ukraine won’t engage Russian forces head-on, said
a Ukrainian presidential adviser. Instead, Kyiv’s forces are chipping away at Russian might in the region, he said, inflicting “a thousand bee stings.”
“You grind down and destroy enemy personnel and vehicles,” Mr. Podolyak said. “You gradually squeeze them out.”
Dislodging Russian forces from Kherson poses a monumental challenge for Ukraine. Military analysts say that to eject troops from an established position, such as Russia’s in Kherson, attackers generally need at least three times as many forces as the defenders, and the ratio can reach five-to-one for urban warfare.
The task is even harder if Ukraine wants to avoid destroying Kherson. Nearby Mariupol was largely reduced to rubble earlier this year as Ukrainian forces tenaciously defended it against relentless Russian attacks, before ultimately retreating or surrendering.
Kherson was one of the first cities Russian troops captured following their invasion on Feb. 24 and remains the only regional capital that Moscow has taken in almost six months of fighting, so it holds significance for the Kremlin.
Not only is Ukraine preparing to fight Russian forces on its own terms around the city, it is also being unusually overt about its plans. That openness has surprised some observers, but outside strategists say it appears to be a calculated approach both to win Western support and draw in more Russian forces for potential encirclement.
“If the Ukrainians just wanted to push the Russians out of Kherson, they wouldn’t broadcast what they’re doing,” said John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who is now an associate professor of warfighting studies at the U.S. Army War College. “It looks like the Ukrainians are baiting the Russians, and they’re taking the bait.”
Ukraine doesn’t intend, initially at least, to launch a massed, direct attack, Mr. Podolyak said, but has already started a counteroffensive aimed at degrading Russian forces.
He compared the tactics to Ukraine’s defense around Kyiv in late February and March, when small, mobile groups ambushed Russian forces and supply lines, destroying armored vehicles and support trucks and killing soldiers until they retreated.
“You have to make small cuts in many places at the same time and bleed the Russian army,” said Mr. Podolyak.
Ukrainian forces on the Kherson front have been bracing for a Russian counteroffensive since the beginning of the month and have focused on defenses while reinforcements are trained. The Ukrainians made only minimal tactical gains on that front over the past month, and those came with high casualties.
Instead, Ukrainian forces have used longer-range weapons, including American M142 Himars mobile rocket launchers, to attack Russian supply depots beyond Kherson and limit Russia’s options for a possible retreat.
Ukrainian front-line commanders say that for a successful offensive into the city, Russian logistics must be battered further—and any move should be swift and surprising, cutting off Russian troops in Kherson from their remaining resupply routes.
Kherson sits near where the narrow Inhulets River joins the wider Dnipro River, and Russian forces must cross either to reinforce troops in Kherson. Ukraine over recent weeks has disabled several bridges across the two rivers, forcing the Russians to use temporary bridges, boats or longer routes. All provide limited capacity and would be open to attack in a Russian retreat.
Western military observers surmise that Ukraine’s strategy is to draw as many Russian troops as possible into Kherson to defend it, cut off their paths of exit and wear them down. The ultimate objective could be to force their surrender.
“If the Ukrainians can trap several companies worth of defenders, that would be the nightmare scenario for the Russians,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales.
Success remains far from assured, but Kyiv is pushing its initiative in part to convince its Western backers that it can prevail against Moscow’s larger forces, observers said.
“Even a small victory can help galvanize support” and give hope to Ukrainians still in Kherson, said Joel Hillison, a retired U.S. Army colonel and now professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College.
He said that during the American Revolution, colonists’ victory in the 1777 Battle of Saratoga showed that they could defeat British forces and helped to win French financial and military support. In the Civil War, British and French support for the Confederacy eroded after its loss at Gettysburg, he said.
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Achieving outright victory over Russian forces in Kherson will require a Ukrainian assault involving land and air forces known as a combined-arms offensive, the combat veterans said. Whether Ukraine has sufficient equipment and manpower to do this remains unclear, but its current assault can weaken Russian forces and thereby reduce the cost and risk to Ukrainian troops of an eventual attack, they said.
Russian troops in Kherson could face a difficult choice over coming weeks, as advancing Ukrainian forces destroy more of their avenues of retreat.
“The smart play for the Russians is to redeploy across the Dnipro and use the river as a defensive position,” said Mr. Nagl. “Instead they’re doubling down on stupid by reinforcing Kherson.”
Ukrainian forces took the retreat-and-defend approach in the Donbas city of Severodonetsk in June, orchestrating what Western observers have described as a textbook withdrawal that is likely to be studied for years.
Russian forces, in contrast, are expanding in Kherson. Mr. Nagl said this will heighten supply requirements inside the increasingly isolated city, posing greater logistical challenges for Moscow, which already struggles with provisioning troops.
Mr. Nagl said the approach suggests that Russian President
has made defending Kherson a priority.
“For Russia, withdrawing from Kherson would be seen as a huge defeat,” he said.
For Ukraine, he said, “The gamble is to capture tens of thousands of Russians in Kherson.” He said success wouldn’t end the war but would buy Ukraine’s president time. “Zelensky needs a big win.”
—Yaroslov Trofimov contributed to this article.
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