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Ukraine struggles to retake Kherson before Russia annexes it

As the 24th week of the Russia-Ukraine war grinds on, both parties appear stuck in a military deadlock. Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region has not made any territorial advances and Russia’s offensive in the eastern Donetsk region seems to have sputtered to a halt despite daily shelling, bombings and attempts at attacks along the entire front.

Some military experts believe the two sides have effectively fought each other to a standstill.

“Given how much attrition the Russians have suffered, the most they can hope for is to take the rest of Donetsk. I don’t think they have the capacity to take Mykolaiv, let alone Odesa,” Panagiotis Gartzonikas, a former armoured division commander in the Hellenic Army and lecturer at Greece’s National Defence College, told Al Jazeera.

“The Ukrainians, with the rocket artillery they’ve received, have achieved some goals, but I think they cannot take Kherson … The Russians are south of the [Dnipro] river and the Ukrainians north. To take Kherson they have to cross the Dnieper, which involves a lot of things apart from rocket artillery.”

Ukrainian leaders had pledged to mount an August counteroffensive in Kherson, prompting Russia to divert battalion tactical groups there and weakening their offensive in Donetsk.

“I don’t know if there will be [a counteroffensive] in the end,” Gartzonikas said.

“What both armies lack most is trained armies. The Russians are increasingly relying on the Wagner Group and other mercenaries. Their tactic is to spend two weeks bombarding an area 10 yards [9.4 metres] wide, and then to launch a platoon-sized offensive to take it, or a company at most. And the Ukrainians will be forced to do the same in any counteroffensive. There are no World War Two-sized manoeuvres by entire divisions.”

Ukraine has been asking for more heavy weaponry, delivered more swiftly. Ukrainian Minister of Defence Oleksiy Reznikov said he needed 100 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) – a guided multiple rocket launcher that Ukraine has used to devastating effect.

But the US has promised 20 and delivered 16. The latest $1bn US reduction of military aid to Ukraine includes HIMARS ammunition, but no new systems.

Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Tagesspiegel magazine on August 7 that Ukraine needs more long-range artillery, rocket launchers and drones to defeat Russia.

“If the West gets tired of the war, then Russia will strike again with all its might,” Podolyak said.

Ukrainian forces are still using HIMARS effectively. Ukrainian Brigadier-General Oleksiy Gromov said HIMARS and other Multiple Launch Rocket Systems have enabled Ukrainian forces to hit 10 enemy command bunkers including three divisional level command posts over the past week. During the same period, Ukraine struck 15 ammunition, fuel and lubricants warehouses, Gromov said.

But such raids have not yet enabled successful counteroffensives on the ground.

The status quo may allow Russia to annex Kherson and Zaporizhia, creating a diplomatic inflexion point.

“If the occupiers proceed along the path of pseudo-referenda they will close for themselves any chance of talks with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his August 7 video address.

War of words

With deadlock on the ground, the two sides are waging a publicity battle over ethics.

On August 3, Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group killed Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka on July 29 in order to remove evidence of “the improper conditions and forms of interrogation of Ukrainian servicemen,” using “a highly inflammable substance, which led to the rapid spread of the fire on the premises”.

The UN has launched a fact-finding mission over the incident, which could lead to prosecution at the International Court of Justice.

Russia, for its part, said that it has destroyed six HIMARS launchers. Pentagon spokesman Todd Brissil denies this as “patently false”, and said Ukrainian forces are using their 16 launchers “with devastating accuracy and efficiency”.

Nuclear contamination spectre

The issue that garnered the greatest publicity, however, was the risk of nuclear contamination at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which is on the Dnieper river.

Ukraine says that since Russian forces seized the plant and neighbouring town of Enerhodar on March 4 they have placed 500 troops with military equipment and ammunition in the engine room of the first reactor unit.

“The invaders’ military equipment made it impossible for specialised firefighting and other equipment to access the engine room of the first power unit, which increases the risk of fire,” Ukraine’s Centre for Countering Disinformation said in a statement on Facebook.

This Russian garrison has also fired into Nikopol, across the Dnipro-river, apparently to provoke retaliatory fire.

“Russia is now using the plant as a military base to fire at Ukrainians, knowing that they can’t and won’t shoot back because they might accidentally strike a nuclear … reactor or highly radioactive waste in storage,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN General Assembly on August 1.

“That brings the notion of having a human shield to an entirely different and horrific level.”

Two days later, Ukraine’s state nuclear power agency, Energoatom, said Russian forces fired rockets and artillery into the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on August 3, aiming at the 330,000 Volt transmission line out of the power station.

“As a result it was damaged, emergency protection was triggered on one of the [reactors], diesel generators were switched on,” the agency said in a statement.

Hours later, Russian forces fired three rocket-propelled grenades that damaged the nitrogen-oxygen station and joint auxiliary building. “There are risks of hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances. Fire danger is high,” said Energostom.

Russia said that Ukraine’s 45th Artillery Brigade also struck the territory of the plant with 152-mm (6 inch) shells from the opposite side of the Dnieper river.

“We are ready to show how the Russian military guards [the plant] today, and how Ukraine, which receives weapons from the West, uses these weapons, including drones, to attack the nuclear plant, acting like a monkey with a grenade,” Yevhen Balytskyi, the head of the Russian administration of Zaporizhia, said.

Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar city, which borders the plant, said Russian forces fired into the city and blamed Ukrainian forces for the strikes.

Matters got worse on August 5. Energoatom said Russian forces shelled the plant again, damaging three radiation monitoring sensors.

“Timely detection and response in case of deterioration of the radiation situation or leakage of radiation from containers of spent nuclear fuel is currently impossible,” it said.

“Apparently, they aimed specifically at the containers of nuclear [fuel], which are stored in the open near the places of shelling: 174 containers, each of which contains 24 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel!”

Russian forces responded by saying that Ukraine had struck the plant with a 220-mm (8.7 inch inch) Uragan rocket launcher.

“Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated,” said International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi. “Any military firepower directed at or from the facility would amount to playing with fire, with potentially catastrophic consequences.”

Amnesty report row

The human rights group Amnesty International also sparked a publicity battle when it issued a report on August 4 chiding the Ukrainian military for basing men and equipment near houses, hospitals and schools, putting civilian lives at risk.

“Survivors and witnesses of Russian strikes in the Donbas, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv regions told Amnesty International researchers that the Ukrainian military had been operating near their homes around the time of the strikes, exposing the areas to retaliatory fire from Russian forces,” said the report.

Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defence Hanna Malyar delivered a forceful response the following day, saying Ukraine has invited the International Criminal Court to investigate all war crimes committed on Ukrainian soil, and Ukrainian courts have convicted servicemen found guilty of such crimes since 2014.

“Russians use the tactic of capturing and holding populated areas, and while we wait for the Russian enemy in the field, the Russians will simply occupy all our houses. Therefore, Ukrainian cities and villages are strengthened and defended against an international criminal, against a criminal state, which is the Russian Federation,” she said.

Focusing on the Ukrainian military and leaving unscrutinised the actions of Russian forces, “is like studying the actions of the victim without taking into account the actions of the armed rapist”.

Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty’s Ukraine office, resigned in protest at the report, accusing the human rights organisation of parroting Kremlin propaganda.

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