Fragments from a War Diary, Part #148
The military situation in Kherson by all accounts is getting worse. I have formed the view that it is too dangerous for me personally to travel there now. I was there in September, and it was dangerous then. There were artillery rounds exploding in and around the city on a regular basis, each and every day, and this makes it just a game of statistics as to whether or not you are unlucky and you are hit by an artillery round fired from the Russian positions on the south bank of the River Dnieper, only 800m away from the city centre. Since then the situation has become progressively worse, by all accounts. I have been told that Kherson is now much more dangerous than Bakhmut; and that’s saying something given that there is daily street fighting from building to building in Bakhmut.
The deteriorating situation derives from the fact that the government in Kyiv is under pressure to rebut the narrative that the war is at a “stalemate”: that is to say, the front line is not moving and the huge costs being incurred by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in blood and treasure is achieving nought and the West is paying for all of this with copious sums of money. The problem with this narrative for Kyiv is that it creates pressure to reach an armistice or some other sort of informal ceasefire with the Russian Armed Forces, with an implicit if not explicit recognition of the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory. What is the point of keeping on fighting, so the argument goes, if the fighting is not achieving anything for either side? Why continue to waste lives and money if nothing is changing? This stark reality is something that the Ukrainian general public is not yet ready to accept and much of the western world is not willing to accept it either although there are increasingly voices in the West that gloomily and pessimistically say that this is the case. Some of those voices are in the US Congress and they are influential.
Hence Ukraine’s valiant and formidable President Zelenskiy is trying to dislodge the “stalemate” narrative both within his domestic voting population and amongst his foreign supporters by demonstrating some sort of progress. The front line in Donbas is well dug in and the same is true in Zaporizhzhia; there is no progress to be made there. Instead the government in Kyiv is making a case for progress in Kherson. So the narrative goes, the Russians are being pushed back from their positions on the south bank of the Dnieper River by the relentless artillery fire of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and hence Kherson is becoming a bridgehead: a point in intimate proximity to enemy territory that can be used as to launch an offensive.
The problem with this narrative is that the only way of really pushing the Russians back from their positions on the south bank of the Dnieper River opposite the city of Kherson and in close proximity to the city on either side is by pontooning the river, since the Russians have blown up all the bridges across the river in the vicinity of Kherson in order to fortify their positions on the south bank (also known as the east or right bank - the river flows northeast to southwest) of the Dnieper. Any attempt to pontoon a river 800m wide at this point would be a massively dangerous exercise unless the Russian artillery, sniper and tank positions can be pushed back a very significant distance. Therefore the Ukrainian Armed Forces have to engage in relentless shelling of the Russian positions in order to force them back, and in response and retaliation the Russian artillery is engaged in relentless shelling of both Kherson and of the surrounding area on the north / west / left bank of the Dnieper River.
The net result is that Kherson is being blown to pieces by constant artillery shelling. I have noticed that Ukrainian Railways has cancelled all civilian passenger services to Kherson and I have heard that there is fear of an attack upon Kherson Railway Station as a way of preventing soldiers, ammunition and equipment from flowing into the city. The western Kherson suburb of Chornobaivka, through which I passed on several occasions in September, is also by all accounts very dangerous, and this suburb sits on the main road from Mykolaïv to the northwest of Kherson which is the first safe large city in free Ukrainian territory. Chornobaivka is being shelled constantly and therefore road travel into Kherson is likewise very dangerous - if the Ukrainian military checkpoints will allow you to pass at all. Body armour is now regarded as essential in downtown Kherson, and nobody should attempt to travel to free Kherson Oblast without both military training and an express military purpose. No foreigner should be there at all.
It is questionable whether the large numbers of Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers being deployed to Kherson are anything more than cannon fodder. This is a war of shelling in which the city of Kherson will presumably end up completely destroyed. The Russians have proven their ability to deliver a seemingly limitless quantity of shells to the westernmost point upon the front line and now they are apparently engaged in an exercise of razing Kherson to the ground by shelling, to prevent the Ukrainian Armed Forces from using Kherson as a bridgehead and to prevent the beginning of an exercise in pontooning the Dnieper River.
I can only hope that the increasingly cold and wet weather and the increasingly short days bring the exchange of shelling in Kherson to some sort of halt because I do not want to see this beautiful, historical city levelled and destroyed. For now all civilians should stay away from Kherson as there is nothing there but danger and death. In the meantime, those civilians in Kherson and within accurate shelling range of the Russian positions on the opposite side of the Dnieper River should surely be forcibly evacuated for their own safety and security. Naturally I hope that some sort of breakthrough of Russian heavy artillery positions on the south bank of the Dnieper is possible and that this can be used after crossing the river to push deep into Russian-occupied territory but I cannot pretend that I find this likely in the very limited remaining time in the summer fighting season before the increasingly muddy and freezing weather makes significant military progress impossible.
I recall, in happier times, flying into the airport just south of Chornobaivka from Istanbul. It was always a somewhat eccentric flight, just once or twice a day, with me and hordes of Turkish salesmen and not many other people on the flight at all. There would be single soldier stamping passports in the very basic airport there, always surprised to see my passport and wondering what on earth I might be doing flying into such a place. Anyway that airport is now comprehensively pulverised and I fear that the rest of the city is at risk of going the same way. I sincerely hope that the fighting will die down in the next few weeks so to let me go back and enjoy a walk along the waterfront in the once beautiful and charming city of Kherson.