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Thursday, September 21, 2023
Sept. 21, 2023

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Rubin: This battle could decide Ukraine war


A mounting Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern Black Sea region of Shevchenkove is building up to a crucial battle that could shape the outcome of the entire war by the end of September.

That is why I was recently rattling down the road from Mykolaiv in an armored Ukrainian military van moving toward the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, as Ukrainian Major Andre (his nom de guerre) explained why the coming battle to retake the city will be critical.

If Ukraine can retake the Black Sea port of Kherson, the only major Ukrainian city that the Russians occupy, it would smash Russian ambitions to seize all of southern Ukraine, including the entire seacoast and the famed port city of Odesa. It would boost the Ukrainian military’s morale and its prospects for regaining more of Ukraine’s southern lands.

Perhaps most important, it would prove to the United States and its allies that Ukrainian forces can drive the Russians back — if only they are provided more of the long-range precision weapons that have already made such a difference to this counteroffensive.

So I was hoping to get some insight into Ukrainian military morale and readiness for the Battle of Kherson.

What I found was a huge boost in military morale compared with my last visit to Mykolaiv in mid-July, a shift fueled by the arrival of 16 HIMARS — highly mobile, long-range multiple-rocket systems provided by Washington.

“HIMARS have really changed the situation,” Major Andre told me, as we sped along dirt roads through fields of harvested wheat.

Russia’s accelerated and deliberate targeting of civilians has fed a seething anger among Ukrainian troops that also stokes morale for the coming fights. Our van drove through the shattered town of Shevchenkove, once home to 7,000 people where barely 100 remain. Buildings not hit by shells were trashed by Russians. The windows of the school were all broken, and inside every room, furniture and papers were tossed into heaps.

“A lot of civilians died in this town,” Major Andre told me.

The major also displayed blistering scorn for the “cowardice” of Russian troops. We drove over grass and dirt roads to a spot where a long line of rusted Russian vehicles — troop carriers and ammunition trucks — lay abandoned, having been hit by Ukrainian fire in March. “They fled and left their dead behind,” he told me, shaking his head in disgust at the behavior of the Russians.

This scorn for Russian troops convinces Ukrainian soldiers that their skills and motivation can offset Moscow’s dispatch of tens of thousands more troops and weaponry to the Kherson region.

“One Ukrainian soldier is equal to 10 Russian soldiers,” the major said firmly. He believes the Russians may flee Kherson, now that their supply lines have been cut off by HIMARS. “They are in a panic, locals don’t support the occupation, and Russian fake news doesn’t help them.”

The major believes the Russians won’t be able to hold an undoubtedly rigged referendum in Kherson in September, intended to endorse the city’s annexation by the Russian Federation.

Ukrainian resistance inside Kherson is well organized, Major Andre said, even though the Russians are trying hard to crush it. “We constantly get information from people in Kherson. We know who is eating what, sleeping where,” he said, “and we are documenting rapes.”

The high military morale doesn’t mean that there isn’t depression over casualties and anger at Western aid that comes too little, and too late.

Yet this military thirst for justice opens the possibility that Ukraine can win the Battle of Kherson. All will depend on whether the West understands it must deliver the necessary HIMARS and other vital weapons — not in months or years, but in the coming crucial weeks.