In 2019, Ukraine declared that 29 August would become an annual day of remembrance for soldiers who had died defending their country. The date marked the anniversary of an infamous battle with Russian forces near the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaisk in 2014, when more than 300 Ukrainian troops were killed. The Ukrainian military appears to have chosen the same date to launch its long-awaited counteroffensive in the country’s south.
Natalya Humenyuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, confirmed in the afternoon of 29 August that their forces had begun “offensive actions in many directions” in southern Ukraine. She declined to give further details. “Every military operation requires silence,” Humenyuk said. “Everyone needs to be patient.”
Addressing the nation that evening Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said he would not reveal any specific information about their plans, but he said the armed forces were fighting to reclaim all Ukrainian land. “This day of remembrance is set for the end of summer, 29 August, to remind everyone about the tragic events of 2014, about Ilovaisk,” Zelensky said. “This war, which began with Russia’s occupation of our Crimea, with an attempt to seize Donbas, must end precisely there – in the liberated Crimea, in the liberated cities of Donbas, with our troops reaching the state border of Ukraine.”
Initial reports claimed that Ukrainian forces had broken through the first line of Russian defences north of the regional capital Kherson, which was captured in early March. But the Russian military has fortified its positions around the city in recent weeks, and analysts have cautioned against expectations of a rapid rout. Earlier in August, British defence officials reported that long convoys of Russian trucks, tanks and artillery were heading south-west from the Russian-held regions of eastern Ukraine towards Kherson. Russian units have been observed digging trenches and building hardened shelters for heavy weaponry in the area.
Still, the war may now be entering a crucial new phase. After the spectacular failure of the initial Russian offensive, in which Russian troops were forced to abandon their attempts to capture the capital, Kyiv, and the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, the Kremlin shifted its focus to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas. Russian-backed separatists had seized control of both regional capitals in 2014 and declared their own “People’s Republics”, which are administered by officials loyal to Moscow.
This second phase of the conflict was characterised by massive artillery bombardments and terrible civilian casualties, along with a series of Russian gains. Aided by much shorter supply lines, with the fighting concentrated in regions that border Russia, the Russian forces were also augmented by units from the separatist regions and mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner group. They laid siege to the south-eastern port city of Mariupol in southern Donetsk, which fell in May, and declared victory in Luhansk in July after taking control of the last Ukrainian-held city in the region, Lysychansk. But the tempo of the conflict has slowed considerably in the two months since, with the front lines barely moving and both sides regrouping after sustaining heavy losses. Russian military recruiters have reportedly been offering substantial signing bonuses and lowering entrance standards to attract more personnel, as well as offering amnesty to prisoners who agree to fight in Ukraine.
Western military aid to Ukraine has continued at pace, however, and in recent weeks the Ukrainian military has been intensifying its attacks on supply lines and ammunition stores behind the Russian lines, demonstrating an increasing capability to strike targets over a longer range. On 9 August an attack on the Saky airbase in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, caused considerable damage and sent Russian tourists in the nearby resorts running for cover. Ukrainian forces have also targeted the bridges used to supply Russian positions in Kherson, threatening to cut off their potential escape routes.
While both sides now appear to be digging in for a long war of attrition, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, probably believes he is better positioned to withstand a battle of endurance. He has ramped up repression at home, where it is now illegal to spread “false” information about the war – or indeed to call it a war – on penalty of up to 15 years in prison, although he is still reluctant to declare a full mobilisation, indicating a degree of hesitation about the true depth of public support for the conflict. The Russian economy is faltering, and there will be more pain to come, but it has not yet collapsed.
Zelensky, on the other hand, faces a degree of time pressure on several fronts. It is important to demonstrate that Ukraine can still make gains and push the Russian lines back ahead of a long, potentially difficult winter in which gas shortages in Europe could put pressure on Kyiv to concede territory to bring a halt to the war. Ukrainian successes on the battlefield also underline the importance of keeping up the supplies of increasingly powerful weaponry from the country’s backers by demonstrating the difference that systems such as the US-supplied Himars rocket system can make. Additionally, the Kremlin is weighing the possibility of holding referendums in the Russian-held regions of his country on 11 September (when regional elections are due to be held in Russia) to annex the territory as they did Crimea in 2014. By keeping the Russian positions in Kherson under sustained pressure, it may be possible to delay such plans.
Yet, if the war is now entering a new phase, this does not mean that we should expect a swift Ukrainian victory in Kherson and a sudden shift in the trajectory of the conflict. This is the beginning of a long, difficult battle to start breaking down the Russian defensive lines and pressuring their positions in southern Ukraine. Reclaiming that territory will be a much more significant challenge, but then again, over these past six terrible months, Ukraine has proved its doubters wrong at every stage.