Ukraine “corrodes” Russian forces in southern counteroffensive
Ukraine started its counteroffensive in Kherson oblast by cutting off Russian supply lines to its forward positions. It has followed up by striking command posts and ammunition depots
Ukraine deepened a southern counteroffensive in the 23rd week of the war with strikes on Russian garrisons and ammunition, prompting Russia to bring in reinforcements by weakening other fronts.
Ukraine also scored a diplomatic victory. Russia agreed to lift its blockade of Black Sea ports to allow Ukrainian grain exports, which Ukraine estimates will bring in $10bn.
Thanks for reading Hellenica! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Ukraine likely lost territory on its eastern front, including a key defensive position near Donetsk city; and an explosion in a Russian prisoner of war camp on that territory killed an estimated 50 Ukrainian soldiers, in what Ukraine describes as a war crime.
The southern counteroffensive
Even before August 2, Ukraine claimed to have liberated 46 settlements in southern Kherson oblast. It says that number has risen over the past week.
Britain’s defence ministry said the Kherson counteroffensive was “gathering momentum” after Ukrainian HIMARS rocket artillery struck three Russian-controlled re-supply bridges on the Dnipro river between July 20 and 27.
On July 30 Ukraine struck again. Its southern command said it damaged a railway bridge over the Dnipro, rendering movement of matériel impossible. These strikes have jeopardised Russia’s ability to resupply forward positions, and Ukraine’s general staff report that Russian forces are trying to repair the bridges.
Ukraine is also attacking the warehouses from which resupply would come. Ukraine’s southern command said precision strikes had destroyed Russian stockpiles of fuel, lubricant and ammunition in Berislav district northeast of Kherson city, and “critically reduced” them in Nova Kakhovka, where Russian forces keep large stockpiles.
Further east along the Dnipro river on the same day, Nikopol district administrator Yevhen Yevtushenko said a Ukrainian strike destroyed a Russian ammunition warehouse across the river from Nikopol. Sergey Khlan, a Kherson administrative advisor, also confirmed that Ukrainian HIMARS rockets destroyed a 40-car train with equipment in Brylivka, about 50km southeast of Kherson city. Some 80 Russian servicemen were estimated killed and 200 wounded.
Military experts say such tactics - decapitating the Russian army, thinning its resources and taking out logistics routes – are consistent with preparations for a counteroffensive.
Brigadier-General Mick Ryan has called this a “strategy of corrosion”.
“In the Battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Ukrainians were able to fight the Russians to a standstill because they were able to penetrate Russian rear areas and destroy parts of their logistic support,” Ryan wrote. “In doing so, they had a significant impact on Russian morale. The Ukrainians therefore corroded the northern Russian expedition physically and morally from within, and forced its ejection from Ukraine.”
The Russians temporarily overpowered this strategy on the eastern front through a hail of fire, but the introduction of HIMARS rocket artillery in late June changed that, Ryan says.
“Ukrainians are re-adopting the asymmetric conventional tactics they used so successfully early in the war… an integral part of their strategy of corrosion,” he says. “The ability to rapidly target [command posts] and use HIMARS to inflict maximum destruction is vital.”
The Ukrainians have excelled at doing just that.
On August 2, Ukraine’s southern command said it destroyed a Russian ammunition depot in Skadovsk, on the southern shore of the Kherson region, well in the Russian rear. On the same day, geolocated footage showed Russian ammunition depots being destroyed in Starosillya and Arhanhelsk north of Kherson city, both on a highway that serves as a ground line of communication. Geolocated footage also showed Ukrainian forces striking Russian artillery positions in Soldatske in Russian-held Crimea, likely with a Phoenix Ghost kamikaze drone. Ukraine’s southern command said its forces killed 32 Russian soldiers on that day.
These surgical strikes are wrong-footing the Russians. On August 1, Russian forces had to stop unloading an ammunition train in Kalanchak station, Kherson, after a smoke screen they had created to disguise their activities from air attack apparently ignited the cargo. The train retreated to Crimea, says Ukraine’s military intelligence.
“In corroding the Russian military physically, morally, and intellectually, the Ukrainians have evolved the military art. This is what 21st century war looks like,” says Ryan.
Russia is having to make hard choices. On July 31, Ukraine’s general staff reported “individual units” of Russian forces were redeploying from the Slovyansk front in Donetsk oblast to Zaporizhia oblast in the south. This shift, says Ukraine’s military intelligence, came after a successful Ukrainian counterattack decimated the garrisons of Verkhniy Tokmak and Chernihivka, settlements northeast of the occupied city of Melitopol in Zaporizhia well behind the Russian frontline. Military intelligence believes Russian forces plan to abandon Chernihivka, which was left with 100 soldiers.
On August 1, Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said Russia has been moving large numbers of troops to Crimea from Donetsk and Luhansk, fearing it may have to fight for the territory in annexed in 2014.
“The threat of the transfer of the war to the territory of Crimea is already becoming a reality for them,” Skibitskyi said.
Ukraine is partly in a hurry to pre-empt a Russian annexation of Kherson. According to intercepted Russian documents, Russia plans to hold a referendum in the south soon. Its preparations include organising 140 pro-Russia demonstrations, creating Russia-supportive media stories to be covered by pro-Russian media, and distributing food and starter kits for collaborators.
Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said Russian forces in Kherson oblast were setting up polling stations and preparing voter lists.
The eastern front
Ukrainian defenders have so far pushed back daily Russian assaults on Donetsk oblast, and while Luhansk oblast is nominally under Russian control, acts of resistance were frequently reported there.
On August 2, however, Russian forces are believed to have captured a key Ukrainian defensive position near Avdiivka in Donetsk oblast. Ukrainian troops had held the Butivka coal mine ventilation shaft since 2015, and it was their closest position to Russian-occupied Donetsk city. Ukrainian forces managed to repel an advance on Avdiivka itself, but Russian forces made incremental advances on Bakhmut.
What began as a war for territory now seems to be turning into a scramble for populations.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Regions, a newly formed body, set up a co-ordination headquarters to evacuate Donetsk oblast on June 29 and told residents this is now mandatory.
“Donetsk is now on the verge of a humanitarian disaster: active fighting is ongoing, infrastructure destroyed. People are not only at risk of being shelled - in the absence of heat, medicine and food, it will be difficult to survive in winter. The way out is to evacuate,” the ministry said.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people, tens of thousands of children... Many refuse to leave... But it really needs to be done. This decision will still have to be made,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a video address.
Russia says it is also in the process of evacuating Donbas civilians for humanitarian reasons at a rate of 25,000 a day, and claims to have moved almost three million residents to Russia during the war, including nearly half a million children.
War crime in Olenivka
Russia says Ukraine killed 50 of its own men when it targeted a detention facility in the Russian-controlled settlement of Olenivka in Donetsk using HIMARS rocket artillery. The deputy head of the self proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic militia, Eduard Basurin, told Rossiya-1 TV channel, “The Ukrainian authorities killed their own people. All the prisoners of war are Ukrainian nationals.” The ambassador of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic to Moscow Rodion Miroshnik said Ukraine did this to silence disgruntled soldiers. “In Kyiv they decided that the surrendered “heroic Azovs” were a disgrace and had a bad effect on the moral climate of both Ukrainians and sponsors of the war. They gave an order to liquidate,” Miroshnik wrote.
Blast analysis indicating that the explosion came from within the building suggests it was a Russian false flag operation, says Ukraine. Its general staff say Russia blew up its own penal colony “to cover up war crimes, discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine, disrupt the supply of Western weapons and increase social tension in Ukrainian society,” and has called for an international investigation.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) says Russian forces laced the detention centre with explosives and fired Grad missile launchers next to it to provoke return fire. If true, this may have aimed at discrediting Ukrainian use of the HIMARS system, which has proven so devastating to Russian forces. Ukrainian forces did not fire back that day, the SBU says.
Ukraine’s military intelligence believes the killing of the POWs was not ordered by Moscow but carried out by the Wagner Group, a military contractor, in order to disguise the fact that it had embezzled money the Kremlin had paid it to build detention facilities.
“[The explosions were] carried out by mercenaries from the Wagner Group by the personal team of the nominal owner of the specified private military company - Eugene Prigozhyn,” said Ukraine’s general staff spokesman Alexander Štupun. “The organization and execution of the terrorist attack were not agreed with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. The main purpose of the terrorist attack is to hide the facts of total embezzlement of funds allocated to hold Ukrainian prisoners of war. It is known that on August 1, a commission from Moscow had to arrive at the "object" to check the expenses of allocated funds and conditions of detention of prisoners.”
“The shelling of the pretrial detention centre in Olenivka is unacceptable, as are reports of barbaric treatment of prisoners of war by the Russian military,” posted US ambassador to Kyiv Bridget Brink.
Zelenskyy called it “a deliberate Russian war crime.”
Timeline: Week 23 of Russia’s war in Ukraine
July 27 – August 2
In the eastern Donetsk oblast, Russian forces focus on attacking Siversk and Bakhmut. Ukrainian general staff report unsuccessful Russian attempts to attack Verkhnokamyanske, east of Siversk. The staff also report Ukrainian forces repel Russian attempts to advance on Bakhmut in Soledar, Semihirya and Berestove.
In the north, the Derhachi city council reports heavy fighting in various settlements north of Kharkiv city.
Ukrainian forces damage the Antonivka vehicle and rail bridges using HIMARS rocket artillery, rendering them unusable for heavy military transport. This helps cut off forward Russian positions in Kherson.
In the south, Russian forces attempt limited offensives in Davydiv Brid and Bilohirka but withdraw.
Ukraine’s general staff say its forces pushed back a Russian assault on Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk oblast and inflicted losses. They also report a Russian reconnaissance-in-force northwest of Slovyansk, which is repelled.
Ukraine’s general staff say Russian forces are redeploying from Luhansk and Kharkiv to Kherson. Ukrainian forces repel an attack at Brukivka-Bikohirka in Kherson. Ukraine’s southern command says Russian forces unleashed a barrage of S-300, Hurricane, Grad and Kalibr missiles overnight against mostly non-military targets.
The US Senate passes a nonbinding resolution calling on secretary of state Antony Blinken to recognise Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, alongside Iran, North Korea and Cuba.
Ukrainian defenders stop a Russian reconnaissance-in-force mission outside Verkhnokamyansk on the Donetsk front line. Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai says Ukrainian defenders also repelled six Russian attacks in Luhansk province, which Russia declared conquered on July 3. Haidai says HIMARS rocket artillery has gone a long way towards defanging the Russian offensive and says it has “lost momentum”.
Ukraine’s general staff say defenders also inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces which unsuccessfully attempted to storm Soledar, Vershyn and Semihirya, all east of Bakhmut. Further south Ukraine repelled assaults on Avdiivka and other settlements in Donetsk oblast.
Ukraine’s southern command says its forces destroyed two Russian ammunition warehouses in Berislav and Kherson districts.
Russian forces south of the Dnipro river fire rocket artillery into Nikopol overnight. The fire is likely to have come from Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, where Russian forces are using radioactive facilities as cover.
Fifty Ukrainian PoWs are killed when their detention facility is blown up in Olenivka, Donetsk. Russia says Ukraine targeted its own men. Ukraine says Russia blew up its own penal colony “to cover up war crimes.”
Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, tells Kyiv television channel that Russia’s lack of trained and experienced officers is hampering its efforts to raise a new army corps and new battalions.
Suspected Russian Iskander missiles hit the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk, killing at least one and wounding five civilians.
Ukraine’s general staff say a three-pronged attack on Semihirya in eastern Donetsk oblast failed, as did a series of ground assaults along the eastern front. They report “systematic shelling” along the entire front.
Ukraine’s air force says it destroyed two Russian command posts and ammunition depots in unspecified locations, killing dozens.
Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai says Ukrainian saboteurs destroyed a switching control box at Svatovo on a railway line used by Russian forces to move ammunition, demonstrating that local resistance is not quashed deep inside Russian-controlled territory.
Russia’s Gazprom cuts off natural gas supplies to Latvia, after Latvia refuses to pay for the gas in roubles to a Russian bank, as specified by Vladimir Putin.
Al Jazeera reports that 16 ships are loaded with grain and ready to leave Odesa port.
On the eastern front, Ukrainian defenders thwart Russian attempts to “improve their tactical position” under air cover in the Bakhmut area.
A hail of a dozen Russian missiles hits Mykolaiv. One of them kills Oleksiy Vadatursky, a Ukrainian grain tycoon who played a key role in negotiating the resumption of grain shipments, in what many local officials told Al Jazeera was a targeted assassination. Ukraine’s southern command says Russian forces also fired two cruise missiles and 50 Grad missiles into Nikopol.
A presumed Ukrainian drone flies into Russia’s Black Sea fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on Russia’s Navy Day, wounding five people.
Russian president Vladimir Putin signs a new naval doctrine casting the US as Russia’s principal rival. He announces the deployment within a few months of Russia’s new Zircon ship-launched missile, which travels at nine times the speed of sound. As part of the new doctrine, Russia intends to strengthen the Black Sea fleet and its infrastructure on the Crimea.
Ukraine’s general staff say their soldiers repel Russian assaults on Avdiivka and Pisky, towns in the teeth of the Russian frontline in eastern Donetsk oblast. Russian forces launch an assault on Bakhmut. There are no assaults on Siversk or Slovyansk for the first time in days, possibly a result of troops redeployments to the southern front.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi tells troops in the east that they have inflicted such losses on Russia’s 17th battalion tactical group, it had to be sent back to Russian for recovery and replenishment.
Ukrainian defence minister Oleksyi Reznikov says four HIMARS systems have arrived, bringing the Ukrainian total to 16. The US had announced it was sending the systems on July 20. Reznikov also says units of the MARS II GMLRS system have arrived from Germany. This is a European variant of the M270 rocket artillery system, which is equal to two HIMARS systems.
Russian forces shell Mykolaiv city overnight, striking dozens of homes, offices and public buildings, and causing an unspecified number of deaths and injuries, say Ukraine’s police. Russian forces also shell civilian areas of Dnipropetrovsk overnight, damaging eight houses and injuring two people.
In a counterattack, Ukrainian marines capture nine Russian soldiers, a lawyer and an officer on the southern front.
Ukrainian infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov says the first ship with Ukrainian grain following a July 22 agreement to lift a Russian blockade is to leave port. The Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni is to carry 26,000 tonnes of Ukrainian corn from Odesa to Tripoli in Lebanon.
Ukrainian military intelligence says Russia concealed losses from a Ukrainian strike against the hotel Krasnii Luch, in the town of Khrystalnyi in occupied Luhansk oblast, where Russian soldiers were billeted.
Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk says the government has begun mandatory evacuations of civilians in the eastern Donetsk region.
The head of Mykolaiv’s state administration Vitaly Kim says Russian forces shell Mykolaiv city twice overnight with Smerch and S-300 anti-air rockets. A security guard is injured.
Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence Vadym Skibitskyi says Russia has sent a battalion tactical group of paratroopers to Crimea, intending to deploy them in Kherson and Zaporizhia. Ukrainian partisan groups in Crimea are becoming increasingly active, he says, expecting a return to Ukrainian control.
Russian forces shell Dnipropetrovsk region in central Ukraine overnight, causing injuries and damage to houses, cars and a power line.
In an interview with Livy Bereg, the head of the Ukrainian Defence Procurement Agency, Denys Sharapov, says the Agency is working to create transparent payment and procurement mechanisms in order to speed up the supply of weapons to Ukraine. The agency was set up in early July for this purpose, suggesting that transparency issues may have dogged Ukraine’s ability to make use of generous financial military assistance from the US and EU. “I am creating an agency that will work according to NATO standards and make any ‘tricky’ schemes impossible,” Sharapov says.
The US announces a new $550mn package of military aid including 75,000 155mm shells and HIMARS rockets.
Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu says Russian forces have destroyed six US-supplied HIMARS launch systems during the war. Ukraine’s southern commander Andriy Kovalchuk denies the claim. Ukraine and the US have denied similar claims in the past.
The Razoni anchors off Turkey’s coast 36 hours after leaving Odesa.
Thanks for reading Hellenica! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.