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For weeks, the world’s attention has been fixed on the battle for Ukraine’s east, where Russian forces have been pressing a painstaking advance. But in the south, recent developments suggest Russia’s hold on territory it seized there may be increasingly fragile.
Moscow’s troops withdrew from a key strategic outpost off Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast Thursday, the latest blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the area. It comes amid a nascent Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kherson as well as growing signs of partisan activity and the Kremlin straining to exert control: The south may be flying under the radar for now, but analysts say it could ultimately prove decisive in the struggle for Ukraine’s future.
Russia has controlled large chunks of Ukraine’s south — including the entire Kherson region — since the early days of the war.
Since late May, however, the Ukrainian army has been reporting counteroffensive operations against Russian forces, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying last week his military was “gradually liberating” the region.
It has left observers wondering if Ukraine is laying the groundwork for a major counteroffensive in the south to open a new front and potentially tip the war in its favor.
“Kherson is really the gateway to Ukraine’s success,” said Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “If Ukrainians can push through Kherson, then that raises the prospect that they can begin to turn the tables on the Russian invasion in a much bigger sense.”
Kherson is a strategically important city of almost 300,000 that serves as a gateway to broader control of the south. It was the first major city captured by Russia after the invasion four months ago.
Located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, just a two-hour drive from Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, it is critical to establishing a land corridor from Russian-controlled areas in the east all the way to Odesa in Ukraine’s southwest — which analysts have said may be one of the goals of the Kremlin’s invasion.