Both sides have given great weight to what happens in Kherson, a city of symbolic and strategic value, where conditions are increasingly dire for the thousands of people who remain.
In the face of a Ukrainian advance, Russian forces are making the occupied city of Kherson increasingly unlivable, in apparent preparation for a major battle there that has been looming for months.
Both sides have given great weight to what happens in Kherson, the only regional capital seized by Moscow’s forces in their invasion this year; President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reportedly refused a request from his military to pull back from the city to more defensible positions.
The Russian flag has been taken down from administrative buildings, military checkpoints have been abandoned, most of the population and the Kremlin-appointed occupation government have fled, and essential services have stopped working.
But so far there is no sign of Moscow’s military giving up on Kherson, in southern Ukraine, with Ukrainian forces saying that Russia has amassed 40,000 troops there.
Combat is raging to the north and west in the wider Kherson region, and as Ukrainian forces slowly press their offensive toward the city, they say they have reclaimed more than 100 towns and villages in the area west of the Dnipro River.
But recent events have fueled speculation about what is happening and what comes next. A Russian pullback? A pitched battle for control of the battered city? A feigned withdrawal by the Russians to lure the Ukrainians into a trap?
Amid spotty communications, unverified claims by Russian officials and limited information coming from Ukraine’s military, here is some of what is known about Kherson and why control of the city matters.
The State of the War
- Kherson Braces for Battle: Civilians and Kremlin-appointed occupation officials have fled the city in southern Ukraine, but Russian troops appear to be digging in for an intense fight. Here’s why control of Kherson matters so much to both sides.
- Infrastructure Attacks: As they struggle to maintain an electricity grid heavily damaged by Russian missiles, officials in Kyiv say they have begun planning for a once unthinkable possibility: a complete blackout that would force the evacuation of the Ukrainian capital.
- On the Diplomatic Front: The Group of 7 nations announced that they would work together to rebuild critical infrastructure in Ukraine that has been destroyed by Russia’s military and to defend such sites from further attacks.
- Refugees: The war has sent the numbers of Ukrainians seeking shelter in Europe soaring, pushing asylum seekers from other conflicts to the end of the line.
Conditions for civilians are increasingly bleak.
The people remaining in the largely depopulated region report that Russians are cutting power supplies and drinking water not only to the city of Kherson but also to towns and villages all along the western bank of the Dnipro.
“They are making a desert out of the right bank,” said Petro, a 30-year-old who lives in the area and managed to get a message out late Sunday night. Because of concerns about his safety, he communicated on the condition that his family name not be used.
“Today, they blew up the power poles, so we have no light and no water,” he added.
While state media in Russia said that Ukrainian shelling had damaged the power lines, Yaroslav Yanushevych, the exiled Ukrainian head of the Kherson regional military administration, blamed Russian troops.
The Russian forces have also placed mines around water towers in Beryslav, Mr. Yanushevych said, referring to a town less than 50 miles from Kherson city and just north of a critical dam near the front lines of the fighting.
Ukrainian officials say that Russians, who have told civilians to evacuate, fear that those left behind could feed intelligence to the advancing Ukrainian forces or sabotage the Russian military. The Kremlin-appointed governor of the region has warned that any civilians still there could be treated as hostile.
Some 250,000 people lived in the city before the war. Ukrainian activists estimate that 30,000 to 60,000 people remain, but it is impossible to know how accurate such guesses are.
Last month, the occupation authorities ordered the evacuation of civilians from the west side of the river. They sent thousands of them eastward, to territory that is held more firmly by Russia, while blocking routes into Ukrainian-controlled areas. The government installed by Moscow also departed, while looting the city, according to residents and Ukrainian officials.
Some Ukrainian officials and residents say the civilian evacuation was a pretext for forced deportations. Others say it was about clearing space for newly mobilized Russian troops.
Losing Kherson would be a major blow to the Kremlin.
When Russian forces stormed across the Antonivsky Bridge over the Dnipro River in March and into Kherson city, a major port and a former shipbuilding center, it marked their biggest success of the early days of the war. Mr. Putin hoped to use the wider Kherson region as a bridgehead for a drive farther west, to the port city of Odesa, but that effort failed.
If the Russian forces are driven back across the Dnipro, it would represent a deep symbolic and practical blow for the Kremlin, and its ambition to conquer all of southern Ukraine. The city of Kherson and surrounding country are the only Russian foothold remaining west of the river.
After Russia illegally seized the Crimean peninsula, to the south, Ukraine cut off a canal from the Dnipro that had been Crimea’s main fresh water supply. The invasion earlier this year allowed Russia to resume the flow of water, but further setbacks in Kherson could allow the Ukrainians to interrupt it again.
With his refusal so far to retreat, Mr. Putin has signaled the prestige and strategic value he attaches to the region. Last month, his government said it had annexed the four Ukrainian regions, including Kherson — though his troops did not control the entirety of any of them — in a move that was widely denounced as illegal.
Ukraine has isolated Russian forces in Kherson.
Since late summer, Ukrainian forces armed with long-range Western artillery have waged a determined campaign to isolate Russian forces west of the river, bombarding the bridges that Moscow used to resupply and reinforce them. At the same time, Ukrainian troops have made a grueling advance on Russian positions.
Russians have relied on pontoon bridges and boats, which have also been shelled. The only remaining river crossing they hold is the Kakhovka dam, more than 30 miles northeast of the city, which has become a major supply route.
Each side has accused the other of planning to sabotage the dam, which could have catastrophic consequences. Much of the terrain downstream, including parts of the city of Kherson, could be flooded. And it could cause a drop in the level of the reservoir behind the dam — the source of critical cooling water for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest.
The Kherson region’s wide-open fields, crisscrossed by irrigation canals that make for excellent defensive positions, have slowed the Ukrainian approach, and the arrival of fall has turned much of the ground to mud. Analysts say that Russia has dispatched some of its most seasoned fighters to the region and stockpiled ammunition and other supplies there.
Both sides have signaled a brutal urban battle for Kherson.
Ukraine’s military says that, despite the withdrawal of checkpoints, there is no evidence of a withdrawal of Russian forces. Both sides have issued public statements signaling a battle ahead.
If Moscow chooses to defend the city, military experts say it could be a bloody, street-by-street battle. Ukrainian forces are still far from the city limits, reportedly facing stiff resistance.
A pro-Russian proxy leader in Kherson said over the weekend that Ukraine was massing artillery, planes and helicopters in preparation for the next stage of its assault on the region. Top officials in Kyiv have said that Moscow might be trying to create the illusion that its forces are leaving Kherson to draw Ukrainians into a fight.