After Russian retreat, Ukrainian military plans next steps

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KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukrainian sniper adjusted his scope and fired a .50-caliber bullet at a Russian soldier across the Dnieper River. Earlier, another Ukrainian used a drone to scan for Russian troops.

Two weeks after withdrawing from the southern city of Kherson, Russia is pounding the city with artillery as it digs in across the Dnieper River.

Ukraine is hitting back at Russian troops with its own long-range weapons, and Ukrainian officers say they want to capitalize on their momentum.

The Russian retreat from the only provincial capital it won in nine months of war was one of Moscow’s most significant battlefield losses. Now that its troops are holding a new front line, the army is planning its next move, the Ukrainian military said through a spokesman.

Ukrainian forces can now push deeper into Russian-controlled areas and possibly push their counteroffensive closer to Crimea, which Russia illegally seized in 2014.

Russian troops continue to establish fortifications, including trench systems near the Crimean border and some areas between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east.

In some places, new fortifications are up to 60 kilometers (37 miles) behind the current front lines, suggesting Russia is preparing for more Ukrainian breakthroughs, according to the British Ministry of Defence.

“The armed forces in Ukraine seized the initiative in this war some time ago,” said Mick Ryan, a military strategist and retired Australian army general. “They have momentum. There’s no way they’re going to waste it.”

Crossing the river and pushing the Russians further back would require complicated logistical planning. Both sides have blown up bridges over the Dnieper.

“That’s what cuts the Russians’ supply lines, and that’s also what will make any further Ukrainian advance beyond the left bank of the river more difficult,” said Mario Bikarski, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In a key development on the battlefield this week, Kyiv’s forces attacked Russian positions on the Kinburn Spit, a gateway to the Black Sea basin, as well as parts of the southern Kherson region still under Russian control. The recapture of the area could help Ukrainian forces push into Russian-held territory in the Kherson region “under significantly less Russian artillery fire” than if they directly crossed the Dnieper River, said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington- based think tank. Control of the area would help Kiev fend off Russian attacks on Ukraine’s southern ports and allow it to increase its naval activity in the Black Sea, the think tank added.

Some military experts say there is a possibility the weather could disproportionately harm poorly equipped Russian forces and allow Ukraine to take advantage of frozen terrain and move more easily than in the muddy autumn months, ISW said.

Russia’s main task, meanwhile, is to prevent further withdrawals from the wider Kherson region and to strengthen its defense systems over Crimea, said Bikarski, the analyst. Ryan, the military strategist, said Russia will use the winter to plan its 2023 offensives, stockpile munitions and continue its campaign targeting critical infrastructure, including power and water plants.

Russia’s daily attacks are already intensifying. Last week, a fuel depot was attacked in Kherson, the first time since Russia withdrew. This week, at least one person was killed and three wounded by Russian shelling, according to the Ukrainian president’s office. Russian airstrikes damaged key infrastructure before Russia left, creating a severe humanitarian crisis. Along with the threat of attack, that adds a layer of stress, say many who coped with Russia’s occupation and are leaving or considering it.

Ukrainian authorities this week began evacuating civilians from newly liberated parts of the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, fearing that lack of heat, power and water due to Russian shelling will make the winter uninhabitable.

On board a train on Monday, Tetyana Stadnik has decided to go to wait for the liberation of Kherson.

“We’re leaving now because it’s scary to sleep at night. Shells are flying over our heads and exploding. It’s too much,” she said. “We’ll wait until the situation improves. And then we’ll come back home.”

Others in the Kherson region have decided to stay despite living in fear.

“I’m scared,” said Ludmilla Bonder, a resident of the small village of Kyselivka. “I still sleep fully clothed in the basement.”

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