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DNIPRO, UKRAINE — Ukrainian forces have made significant advances in the past few weeks, recapturing large swaths of eastern and northeastern Ukrainian territory. But now they’re preparing for what could be one of their toughest battles ever. It is the strategically important southern city of Kherson.
“Russians know how to fight,” says Major Roman Kovalev. “They learn quickly. They’re not as strong as they were in the spring. It’s hard to fight them.”
Kovalev will lead a reorganized 500-man battalion to the front lines as early as next week.
As he was speaking at a military camp outside Dnipro, dozens of recruits and experienced officers were making their way through the tall grass during a training exercise at a camp in eastern Ukraine.
He tells the soldiers, and anyone who will listen, that the Russian army will not be ill-prepared. Russians have learned that Ukrainians can fight, he says.
“They are changing tactics,” he says. “They are moving more cautiously, trying to take our land piece by piece.”
Recapture of Kherson would thwart Russia’s goal of cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea
Kyiv-based military expert Oleksandr Musienko says Kherson faces many dangers. For the Ukrainians, retaking the provincial capital would be a huge morale and strategic victory. It would also set the stage for the recapture of parts of the neighboring Zaporizhia region, including the Russian-controlled nuclear power plant.
And for Russia, which insisted on officially annexing Kherson, it would be devastating. Zaporizhia region, along with two other regions from Ukraine last month.
“De-occupying Kherson would end Russia’s plans to advance into Kriviri, Mykolaiv or Odessa,” says Musienko.
Not only would it hurt Russia’s plans to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, but it would also be very embarrassing for Moscow, he said.
“It’s huge, it’s going to be really huge,” Major Hryhoriy Havrysh said of the recapture of Kherson. “Kherson is a symbol of the South.”
But just as Ukrainians are eager to reclaim it, Habrish knows that the Russians will not relinquish control without a fierce battle.
“We made progress. They responded,” he says. “And now we need to create new opportunities.”
Kherson officials appointed by Moscow began to flee to Russia
Some of the newly mobilized Russian conscripts were sent to assist in Kherson. Local officials installed by Moscow are also building territorial defense units and encouraging men willing to join.
“Everything is under control,” Kirill Stremsov, deputy administrator of the Russian-installed area, said in a public message on Telegram’s social media and messaging app.
Stremousov is trying to paint a picture in which the Russians keep the Ukrainians at bay. Meanwhile, Moscow-appointed city officials have fled to Russia.
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Four blasts from grenade launchers shake the ground Kovalev’s soldiers are advancing on. When asked about the new Russian conscripts, he laughs.
“Let them all come. The more they come, the more they stay here,” he said, implying that those who fight Ukraine will also die in Ukraine.
For him, the Kherson battle is personal. After Kherson, Ukrainians can turn to an even bigger prize – the Crimea, where Kovalev grew up. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
It has been eight years since Kovalev visited his hometown of Sevastopol on the Black Sea coast.
“Sometimes I dream about it,” he says. “I dream of the sea. I dream of my native city. There is my soul.”
He also expects to see it soon, saying, “I believe it will happen.