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Dnipro, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces have made significant gains over the past several weeks, retaking large swathes of Ukrainian territory in the east and northeast. But now they are preparing for what may be one of their toughest battles yet: the strategically important southern city of Kherson.
“The Russians know how to fight,” says Major Roman Kovalev. “They learn quickly. They are not the same forces that were in the spring. It is difficult to fight them.”
Kovalev is leading a newly reconstituted 500-strong battalion to the front lines early next week.
Speaking at a military camp outside Dnipro, dozens of new troops and more experienced officers were making their way across a long field of grass during a training camp in eastern Ukraine.
He tells his soldiers – and everyone who will listen – that the Russian forces will not be unprepared. The Russians learned that the Ukrainians could fight back, he says, leading them to rethink previous efforts to quickly seize large parts of the territory.
“They are changing their tactics,” he says. “They are moving with greater caution, trying to take our land piece by piece.”
The restoration of Kherson will thwart Russia’s goal of cutting Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea
Oleksandr Mosenko, a Kyiv-based military expert, says there is a lot at stake in Kherson. For Ukrainians, reclaiming this regional capital would be a huge morale — and a strategic win. It would also pave the way for restoring parts of the neighboring Zaporizhzhya region, including a Russian-controlled nuclear power plant.
And it would be devastating for Russia, which claimed to have officially annexed Kherson and Zaporizhzhia along with two other regions of Ukraine last month.
“If we cancel the occupation of Kherson, we will destroy Russian plans to go to Kryvyi Rih, Mykolaiv or Odessa,” says Mosenko.
It would not only deal a blow to Russia’s plans to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, he says, but would also be a terrible embarrassment for Moscow.
“It’s going to be huge, really huge,” Major Hrihori Haverish says of the Kherson restoration. Kherson is a symbol of the south.
But as keen as the Ukrainians are to get it back, Haverich knows that the Russians will not relinquish control without a bitter fight.
“We made progress, and they reacted,” he says. “Now we need to create new opportunities.”
Moscow-appointed officials in Kherson began fleeing to Russia
Some new Russian recruits mobilized to help were sent to Kherson. Moscow-appointed local officials are also building regional defense units—and encouraging willing men to join.
“Everything is under control,” Kirill Strimosov, the deputy district director installed in Russia, said in a public message on the Telegram social networking and messaging app.
Strimosov is trying to paint a picture that the Russians are keeping the Ukrainians in trouble. Meanwhile, city officials appointed by Moscow are fleeing to Russia.
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Four explosions of grenade launchers shake the ground as Kovalev’s soldiers advance. He laughs when asked about the new Russian recruits.
“Let them all come. The more they come, the longer they will stay here,” he says, noting that those who fight against Ukraine will also die in Ukraine.
For him, the battle for Kherson is personal. After Kherson, the Ukrainians can turn to an even larger prize – the Crimea, where Kovalev grew up. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Eight years have passed 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 city. My soul is there.”
He’s counting on seeing it again soon, and he says, “I think it will.”
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