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In the battle for Kherson, Ukrainian infantry officers say don't underestimate Russia

Ukrainian artillery unit members turn back to their position after firing toward Kherson on Friday.
Bulent Kilic
/
AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian artillery unit members turn back to their position after firing toward Kherson on Friday.

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces have made significant gains over the last several weeks, recapturing wide swaths of Ukrainian territory in the east and northeast. But now they're bracing for what could be one of their toughest battles yet: for the strategically important southern city of Kherson.

"The Russians know how to fight," says Maj. Roman Kovalev. "They learn fast. They're not the same forces as they were in the spring. It is hard to fight them."

Kovalev is leading a newly reconfigured 500-person battalion to the front lines as early as next week.

As he spoke at a military camp outside Dnipro, dozens of new troops and more experienced officers were making their way through a tall field of grass during a training exercise in a camp in eastern Ukraine.

He tells his soldiers — and anyone who will listen — that the Russian forces won't be underprepared. The Russians have learned that the Ukrainians can fight, he says, causing them to rethink earlier efforts to quickly take large chunks of territory.

"They're changing their tactics," he says. "They're moving more cautiously, trying to take our land one piece at a time."

Retaking Kherson would thwart Russia's goal of cutting Ukrainian access to the Black Sea

Oleksandr Musienko, a military expert based in Kyiv, says there is a lot at stake in Kherson. For the Ukrainians, taking back this regional capital would be huge for morale — and a strategic win. It would also set the stage to take back parts of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, including a nuclear power plant that the Russians control.

And it would be devastating for Russia, which claimed to formally annex the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions along with two other territories from Ukraine last month.

"If we de-occupy Kherson, we will destroy Russian plans to move forward to Kryvyi Rih, to Mykolaiv or to Odesa," Musienko says.

It would not only deal a blow to Russian's plans to cut off Ukraine's access to the Black Sea, but also would be terrible embarrassment to Moscow, he says.

"It would be huge, really huge," Maj. Hryhoriy Havrysh says of reclaiming Kherson. "Kherson is symbolic for the south."

Maj. Hryhoriy Havrysh tours his bunks at a military camp outside Dnipro on Oct. 24.
Franco Ordoñez / NPR
/
NPR
Maj. Hryhoriy Havrysh tours his bunks at a military camp outside Dnipro on Oct. 24.

But as eager as the Ukrainians are to take it back, Havrysh knows the Russians won't give up control without a bitter fight.

"We made progress. They reacted," he says. "And now we need to make new opportunities."

Moscow-appointed officials in Kherson have begun fleeing to Russia

Some of Russia's newly mobilized conscripts have been sent to help in Kherson. Local officials installed by Moscow are also building territorial defense units — and encouraging willing men to join.

"Everything is under control," Kirill Stremousov, the region's Russian-installed deputy administrator, said in a public message on the Telegram social media and messaging app.

Stremousov is trying to paint a picture that the Russians are holding the Ukrainians at bay. Meanwhile, the Moscow-appointed city officials are fleeing into Russia.

A man enters an apartment block in Zaporizhzhia on Friday that was destroyed after being hit by a Russian missile.
Carl Court / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
A man enters an apartment block in Zaporizhzhia on Friday that was destroyed after being hit by a Russian missile.

Four explosions from grenade launchers shake the ground where Kovalev's soldiers are advancing. He chuckles when asked about the new Russian conscripts.

"Let them all come. The more that come, the more that will remain here," he says, implying that those who fight against Ukraine will also die in Ukraine.

For him, the battle for Kherson is personal. After Kherson, the Ukrainians can turn to an even bigger prize — the Crimean Peninsula, which is where Kovalev grew up. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

It's been eight years since Kovalev has been to his hometown of Sevastopol, along the Black Sea coast.

"Sometimes I dream about it," he says. "I dream about the sea. I dream about my home city. My soul is there."

He's counting on seeing it again soon, he says: "I believe it's going to happen."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.