Phase three of the war in Ukraine has begun

BEHIND THE LINES: The launch of Ukraine's Kherson offensive against Russia marks the opening of a new phase in the conflict.

 WORKERS RENOVATE the bas-relief of a damaged monument near the Antonivskyi Bridge in the Russia-controlled city of Kherson, Ukraine, on July 27. The sign on the monument reads: ‘Kherson. Founded in 1778.’ (photo credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)
WORKERS RENOVATE the bas-relief of a damaged monument near the Antonivskyi Bridge in the Russia-controlled city of Kherson, Ukraine, on July 27. The sign on the monument reads: ‘Kherson. Founded in 1778.’

The Ukrainian armed forces this week launched an offensive in the Kherson region, located in the southeast of Ukraine. Ukrainian media is reporting that Kyiv’s forces have broken through the first line of Russian defenses outside of the city of Kherson. The Russian state-owned RIA news agency is also reporting the Ukrainian push, which it claims has already “failed miserably.” 

Amid the fog of war, and the claims and counterclaims, it is too soon for any clear assessment. But the events in Kherson appear to constitute the beginning of a major Ukrainian effort to retake territory in the south, earlier than had been predicted by much analysis. This operation in turn marks the opening of a new phase in this grueling war, which has already passed through two distinctive stages. 

The war in Ukraine is the largest scale and most consequential conflict to take place on European soil since 1945. Six months since the dramatic opening of hostilities by the Russians in the early hours of February 24, and with a new chapter perhaps in its opening stages, it is an opportune moment to take stock of the war’s progress, and to assess where events may be heading.

In the first, mobile phase of the war, Moscow sought to make rapid territorial gains along four identifiable fronts. In the northern front/Kyiv area, Moscow launched an attack from Belarus toward the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after its initial attempt to swiftly seize the city using airborne assault forces failed. 

 Police and military officers inspect destroyed houses by a strike, amid Russia's invasion, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, August 29, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS) Police and military officers inspect destroyed houses by a strike, amid Russia's invasion, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, August 29, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS)

Attack on Kharkiv

In the northeast, the Russians began an attack in the direction of the city of Kharkiv. In the south, attacks were launched from Crimea, with the intention of rolling up Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline in the direction of Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and ultimately Odesa and the border with Moldova. Kherson, the only regional capital to fall to the Russians, was taken on March 2 as part of this offensive. In the southeast, attacks were launched from Luhansk and Donetsk, with the goal of completing the conquest of the Donbas, which had commenced in 2014.

In this dramatic opening phase, many observers feared that independent Ukraine would rapidly be overrun. Some analyses recalled the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow’s forces took over its neighbor in 48 hours, having first seized control of Prague’s international airport. Others pointed to the crushing intervention by Moscow in 1956 against the armed anti-Communist revolt in Hungary, an invasion that secured control of that country within a month. 

Many journalists, this author included, made for beleaguered Kyiv at that moment. I had witnessed the city in revolution in 2013, in the events at the Maidan, which began the process that eventually led to the Russian invasion. Like many others, I assumed that the Russian attempt at encirclement of the Ukrainian capital must surely succeed. I wanted to witness the city in what I assumed would be the last days of its existence as Ukraine’s sovereign capital. 

Kyiv in March

THE ATMOSPHERE in Kyiv in the first days of March was one of grim determination. The streets were empty. Air raid sirens sounded at regular intervals. There was still food in the shops, but shortages were beginning. Across the city, in schools and office blocks and hospitals, soldiers and volunteers were frenetically preparing for the defense of the city. 

But as it turned out, of course, the Russians never entered Kyiv. Extended and chaotic supply lines, poor leadership, shortages of manpower, and determined Ukrainian resistance all ensured that the push for the city would falter. The assault on Kyiv was abandoned by mid-March.

A Ukrainian counterattack from March 16 pushed the Russian forces back from the city, recapturing the entire area north and east of Kyiv, including Hostomel, site of the Antonov Airport – where Russian airborne forces in the early hours of February 24 had sought to repeat their forefathers’ success in Prague in 1968, in seizing an airport to ferry in the invasion forces – and had failed.

The first, mobile phase of the war was over by early April. The Russians had enjoyed some success on the southern front. The port city of Mariupol was taken on April 3, following a bitter and bloody siege. Russian shelling of Odesa and Mykolaiv continued. But the anticipated push up Ukraine’s coastline failed to materialize. 

On the northeastern front, the Russians made little progress, trying and failing to capture the city of Kharkiv. 

In the east, Russian forces tried to advance from their existing pre-2022 areas of control in Luhansk and Donetsk. A Russian attempt to push westward from Severiodonetsk at this time was repulsed, however.

The result was that by early April, when the main mobile phase of the war ended, a Ukrainian salient extending roughly 40 km. into the main body of Russian-held territory had been created in this area. This salient was also roughly 40km. wide. 

This salient formed the central focus of the fighting in the period April to July. With its efforts at a rapid conquest of Ukraine thwarted, Russia now sought to grind forward slowly, using a relentless artillery barrage to reduce areas to rubble, before occupying them. Yet this Donbas-centered second phase of the war, in which the other frontlines were static, also garnered Moscow only the most modest achievements.

Relentless shelling

I ENTERED the eastern salient in June, reporting from the towns of Lysychansk, Slovyansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk. In Lysychansk, the shelling was relentless, the remaining civilians reduced to life on the most primitive level by the destruction of infrastructure. People in Lysychansk, in the eye of the Russian storm, prepared food on improvised wood burners and buried their dead in graves hurriedly dug in the waste ground between rounds of shelling. The town fell to the Russians on July 2. The Russians inherited rubble. 

But the conquests of Severiodonetsk and Lysychansk were the sole meager fruits of the grinding, artillery-led Russian effort in the Donbas over summer. And as Ukraine began to integrate western military systems, such as the M142 Himars, the balance of destruction was rendered more even, and a long, static, artillery-led semi-frozen conflict seemed to be in the offing. 

This second, holding phase of the war now appears to be over. Many thought that the Ukrainians would not manage to carry out a counteroffensive before the onset of winter. Kyiv is evidently mindful of the possibility that Russia may engineer a gas crisis in Europe over the winter months, creating chaos and seeking to undermine Western support for Ukraine. This, in turn, may lead to pressure on Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire in place, leaving Russia with around 20% of Ukraine in its hands. The counteroffensive toward Kherson currently underway is evidently an attempt to preempt any such moves, and to change the dynamic of the war.

Ukraine has in the last six months prevented an attempt to destroy it as an independent state, and has successfully held in place a Russian effort at a slow and grinding advance through attrition. An attempt is now underway to break the resulting deadlock. It remains to be seen if Kyiv’s forces can sustain the momentum and move toward real territorial gains in the period ahead. The third phase of the Ukraine war has begun.