Ukraine’s South: Potentially Decisive Region for the Issue of this War?

March 1, 2023
Although the major fighting today lies in the Eastern parts of Ukraine around Bakhmut, Ukraine’s South could play a decisive role in the issue of this war.

Here’s why:

Throughout this winter, attention has been focused primarily on Ukraine's East - a series of battles for control over Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, in particular on the Battle of Bakhmut, which is without a doubt one of the bloodiest chapters of the war. Against this background, however, one cannot ignore the South - namely Kherson and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts - control over which brings a number of tactical and strategic advantages to each side.

UkraineWorld conducted interviews with three military experts.

Russia's current interests in Ukraine's South

One of Russia's main goals for the near future remains the complete capture of Donetsk Oblast. Against this background, Moscow is considering accompanying efforts towards this objective with  attacks from neighbouring Zaporizhzhya Oblast, explains Oleksandr Musienko, Head of the Centre for Military & Legal Studies, a Ukrainian military think tank. In  Russia's  vision, this could:

  • pull Ukrainian forces away from Donetsk Oblast;
  • allow Russia to expand their tactical space in order to prevent a future Ukrainian counteroffensive and preserve their land corridor to Crimea.

For this, Russian troops are occasionally carrying out armed reconnaissance along the entire line of the Southern front. This concerns primarily the highways leading to Zaporizhzhya and  the roads from the occupied territories.

Connecting the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya fronts seems to be fairly justified. Ukraine's retention of Bakhmut does not allow Russia to fully focus on the South, Valentyn Badrak, Director of the Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS), shares in the conversation with UkraineWorld.

The fact that Russia is keeping a large part of its aircraft equipment on standby and the accelerated preparation of the mobilisation contingent is taking place shows Russia's calculation for further occupation. The key challenge for the Kremlin is to launch an offensive before Ukraine receives the weapons promised by its partners.

According to CACDS's estimates, the Russian groups will be more or less ready at the end of March - beginning of April.

At the same time, the probability of a Russian amphibious assault operation from the sea in the South remains quite low. Ukraine has managed to build a rather strong coastal defence, including both coastal artillery and coastal missile systems, in particular Neptune, Valentyn Badrak points out.

For his part, while talking to UkraineWorld, Mykhailo Samus, Director at the New Geopolitics Research Network & Deputy Director for International Affairs at the CACDS, states that, in the Zaporizhzhya Oblast, the Russians are primarily preparing to strengthen the defensive lines, as they currently do not have sufficient resources to occupy the city of Zaporizhzhya or seize neighbouring regions.

As for Kherson Oblast, after the Russians' autumn retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro, their advance in the region is limited by natural barriers. This consolidation of the frontline testifies to the success of Ukraine's earlier counteroffensive in this direction. As a result, speculation by Russian propagandists about their possible advance to Mykolaiv or Odesa is far from reality.

Ukraine's chances of developing a southern counteroffensive

After its remarkable counteroffensive last autumn, Kyiv has been accumulating the necessary resources for further advance. If the steady provision of weapons to Ukraine continues and expands, Ukraine will be able to launch a counteroffensive in the spring, Musienko says. However, if the process is delayed and Russia is able to mobilize forces first, then Ukraine will have to be on the defensive. Musienko is of  the opinion that Ukraine has a good chance for a counteroffensive in the South, whereas for Moscow it would mean a rather serious defeat. If it is successful, Russian forces in the south  would be divided and lose the so-called land corridor to Crimea.

Referring to the earlier words of Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian public expects that Melitopol in  Zaporizhzhya Oblast is likely to be the next liberated city.

In this context, Mykhailo Samus is convinced that in the event of the formation of a "shock fist" with heavy weapons in the spring, there will indeed be room for a counteroffensive.

De-occupying Melitopol and Berdyansk in Zaporizhzhya Oblast is crucial to cut the connection between the Russian forces in the East (Donetsk & Luhansk Oblast) and the South (Kherson Oblast & Crimea). If Ukraine's counteroffensive succeeds, it will:

  • complicate Russia's logistics, making it impossible to transfer Russian weapons and personnel to the occupied parts of Kherson Oblast,
  • enable the preparation of a Ukrainian operation to liberate Crimea, 3) endanger Russian groups in Donbas, allowing Ukraine to de-occupy the region, similar to what happened in  2014.

Moscow also understands that Kyiv's counteroffensive is very much tied to the speed at which the  weapons promised to Ukraine are delivered. As a result, there is the possibility that the Kremlin will use its under-prepared, newly mobilized forces in order to act faster than Ukraine, Valentyn Badrak suggests. According to him, however, previous battles have confirmed that in such a situation, even a numerical advantage will most likely not help Russia.

What weapons does Ukraine need?

Сarrying out any meaningful counteroffensive is only possible if Ukraine is provided with high-quality and high-precision weapons.  Kyiv has not stopped highlighting this since the very beginning, and the experts interviewed by UkraineWorld concur.

There are three key types of weapons that Ukraine needs most at the moment, Oleksandr Musienko argues:

  • heavy weapons - primarily tanks;
  • long-range missiles, such as ATACMS and HIMARS, with a range of 300 km;
  • aviation - F16 fighter aircraft.

He notes that ATACMS missiles are important not only for counteroffensives but also for defence, to prevent Russia from deploying and redeploying its forces. Ukraine has already carried out such strikes on the Russian near rear with HIMARS systems, whereas more long-range systems will make it possible to target the far rear, in particular in occupied Crimea.

To break through Russian defences, Ukraine needs to employ heavy formations and strike groups. According to expert Mykhailo Samus, this requires modern tanks and heavy-armoured vehicles, like the Bradley, Marder and Stryker infantry fighting vehicles.

For the effective use of this potential, Ukraine  needs high-precision artillery and long-range systems, which, as part of  shaping operations (destruction of command posts, ammunition dumps, etc.), will enable a transition to a decisive operation.

After all, air superiority is necessary - if not over all of Ukraine, then at least in certain relevant directions, Samus argues. For a successful counteroffensive with the lowest loss of personnel, Ukraine should have at least one or two multifunctional F16 or Eurofighter squadrons.

One thing remains clear - time is in favour of Russia. Its huge mobilization resources give Kremlin more than significant advantages. The courage of the Ukrainian military was able to turn the tide of events, but in order for this bloody Russian war to end as soon as possible, the supply of weapons to Ukraine must take place without any delays.

Analyst and Project Coordinator at UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine