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Opinion A southern offensive opens in the Ukraine war

Rising smoke can be seen from the beach after explosions were heard from the direction of a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, on Aug. 9. (UGC/AP)

The grinding war of attrition in Ukraine might be entering a new phase as the Ukrainian military prepares an offensive to recover occupied land in the southern region surrounding Kherson, and Russia escalates its rhetoric by charging that the United States “is directly involved in the conflict.”

Ukraine appears to have begun its new southern campaign with a bold attack Tuesday on a Russian air base in Crimea, along the Black Sea coast. Commercial satellites show that as many as nine Russian jets were destroyed by explosions at the base, which also damaged nearby apartment buildings. A Ukrainian official said his country’s special forces carried out the attack.

With its long-anticipated southern offensive, Ukraine evidently hopes to regain momentum against Russian forces that have suffered heavy losses of soldiers and equipment since they invaded on Feb. 24. At a time when Russia is strained and vulnerable, Ukrainian leaders want to show that they can reclaim lost ground and ultimately prevail.

It’s a gutsy strategy, but also a risky one. Russia has a bigger army, and in combating a Ukraine assault, it will have the advantage of defense, unlike in earlier phases. “This is the time for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, but they’ve got to succeed,” argues William B. Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv. “You don’t want to try it and fail.”

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The Biden administration says it is giving Ukraine the weapons, ammunition and training it needs to win this battle to regain occupied territory in the south. On Monday, the Pentagon announced a new $1 billion arms package that includes additional rockets for the 16 HIMARS launchers now in Ukraine, 75,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, and advanced antiaircraft missiles.

Russia, meanwhile, has accused the United States of providing Kyiv with intelligence information to attack Russian forces. The new tensions surfaced after an Aug. 1 report by London’s Daily Telegraph in which Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Vadim Skibitsky, the country’s deputy chief of military intelligence, said that “we use real-time information” from the United States in targeting attacks by HIMARS rockets on Russian fuel and ammunition supplies.

The Skibitsky interview drew sharp Russian comments on Aug. 2. “What other confirmation of US involvement in hostilities in Ukraine is required,” said the foreign ministry in a tweet. “All this undeniably proves that Washington, contrary to White House and Pentagon claims, is directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” said defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

Asked about the Skibitsky comment, a Pentagon spokesman said: “We provide the Ukrainians with detailed, time-sensitive information to help them understand the threats they face and defend their country against Russian aggression.” An administration official didn’t respond to a query on Thursday as to whether Russia had sent private messages about the targeting issue as well.

Ironically, one U.S. aim in the intelligence sharing was apparently to check any HIMARS attacks the United States viewed as too risky. The Telegraph said Skibitsky “suggested” that the exchange of information “would allow Washington to stop any potential attacks if they were unhappy with the intended target.”

Ukraine is able to turn its attention to the southern front because it has largely blunted Russia’s attacks in the eastern Donbas region. Russia has made slow progress there, at great cost, expanding the foothold it gained when its forces invaded in 2014. But Ukraine’s real lifeline is the Black Sea coastline. If Ukrainian forces can push the Russians back from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, to the east, it would relieve pressure along the coast and could eventually protect Ukraine’s maritime access to global markets.

Ukraine’s timetable for the southern campaign is driven partly by its desire to beat a planned Russian referendum in Kherson and neighboring areas that might be a first step in declaring them “Russian” territory. U.S. officials expect that this referendum could take place this month or in September, and they fear it would intensify the war and make any eventual peace negotiations much harder.

Ukraine’s battle against the invaders is also evolving toward greater use of special forces in covert attacks against Russia and its Ukrainian allies. Vitaliy Gura, a Ukrainian who was helping Russia administer in the Kherson region, was assassinated Aug. 6, according to a Tass report quoted by Agence France-Presse. “Several assassination attempts have been reported against officials in Ukrainian regions seized by Russia since the start of its military operation,” the AFP reported.

Senior U.S. officials warned Moscow before the war began that they would face such guerrilla tactics if they invaded. Ukraine would prove to be an indigestible “porcupine,” U.S. officials predicted, drawing on the United States’ own bitter experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the invasion, U.S. and British special forces have helped train their Ukrainian counterparts in insurgency tactics that could help make the “porcupine strategy” a reality.

Ukrainian morale remains astonishingly high. According to a new poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute, 93 percent of Ukrainians see the future as “rather promising,” and about 98 percent think Ukraine will win the war.

Russian generals are said to be frustrated by the stalemate in Ukraine, and their consternation will grow if Ukraine can stage a successful counteroffensive in the south. But Russian President Vladimir Putin appears unfazed by Ukraine’s new southern strategy. For him, this war remains the geopolitical equivalent of a cage fight, in which he demands submission from his opponent.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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