Ukraine has deepened a counteroffensive in the south of the country in the 23rd week of the war, striking Russian garrisons and ammunition stockpiles, forcing Russia to bring in reinforcements and weakening other fronts as a result.
Ukraine also scored a diplomatic victory: Russia has agreed to lift its blockade of Black Sea ports to allow Ukrainian grain exports, which Ukraine estimates will bring in $10bn in much-needed revenue.
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Ukraine likely lost territory on its eastern front, including a key defensive position near Donetsk city; while an explosion in a Russian prisoner of war camp in occupied Donetsk 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 province and it says the number now liberated has risen again over the past week.
Britain’s defence ministry said the Kherson counteroffensive was “gathering momentum” after Ukrainian-operated HIMARS rocket artillery systems struck three Russian-controlled resupply bridges on the Dnieper river between July 20 and 27.
On July 30, Ukraine struck again. Its southern command said it had damaged a railway bridge over the Dnieper, rendering the movement of freight impossible. These strikes have jeopardised Russia’s ability to resupply forward positions in the south, and Ukraine’s general staff have reported that Russian forces are trying to repair the damaged bridges.
Ukraine is also attacking the warehouses from which Russian resupplies are sourced.
Ukraine’s southern command said that precision strikes had destroyed Russian stockpiles of fuel, lubricant and ammunition in Berislav district northeast of Kherson city, and “critically reduced” supplies in Nova Kakhovka, where Russian forces keep large stockpiles.
Further east along the Dnieper 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 adviser, also confirmed that Ukrainian HIMARS rockets destroyed a 40-car train with equipment in Brylivka, about 50km (around 31 miles) southeast of Kherson city. Some 80 Russian servicemen were estimated killed and 200 wounded in the attack.
Military experts say such tactics – decapitating the Russian army, thinning its resources and destroying logistics routes – are consistent with preparations for a counteroffensive.
Retired Australian Major-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 the Ukrainian strategy on the eastern front through a hail of missile and artillery fire, but the introduction of US-made HIMARS rocket artillery systems in late June has 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,” he added.
Ukrainian forces have excelled at doing just that.
On August 2, Ukraine’s southern command said it had destroyed a Russian ammunition depot in Skadovsk, on the southern shore of the Kherson region, well inside the Russian rear.
On the same day, geolocated footage showed Russian ammunition depots being destroyed in Starosillya and Arkhanhelske 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, Ukraine’s military intelligence said.
“In corroding the Russian military physically, morally, and intellectually, the Ukrainians have evolved the military art. This is what 21st-century war looks like,” Ryan says.
Russia now has to make hard choices.
On July 31, Ukraine’s general staff reported “individual units” of Russian forces were redeploying from the Sloviansk front in Donetsk province to Zaporizhia in the south. This shift, says Ukraine’s military intelligence, came after a successful Ukrainian counterattack decimated the garrisons of Verkhniy Tokmak and Chernihivka, two settlements northeast of the occupied city of Melitopol in Zaporizhia well behind the Russian front line.
Military intelligence believes Russian forces plan to abandon Chernihivka, which was left with 100 defending 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 it annexed in 2014.
“The threat of the transfer of the war to the territory of Crimea is already becoming a reality for them,” Skibitsky said.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive is partly 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 other resources to collaborators.
Skibitsky also said Russian forces in Kherson were setting up polling stations and preparing voter lists.
The eastern front
Ukrainian defenders have so far pushed back daily Russian assaults on Donetsk province, and while Luhansk province is nominally under Russian control, acts of resistance are frequently reported there.
On August 2, however, Russian forces are believed to have captured a key Ukrainian defensive position near Avdiivka in Donetsk.
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 for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, a newly formed body, set up a coordination headquarters to evacuate Donetsk on June 29 and told residents that evacuation 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,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address.
Russia says it is also in the process of evacuating civilians from the Donbas region for humanitarian reasons at a rate of 25,000 a day, and claims to have already moved almost three million residents to Russia since the war started, 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, claimed that Ukraine had carried out the attack 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 in the prison came from within the building suggests the attack was a Russian false flag operation, Ukraine said.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russia blew up its own penal colony in order “to cover up war crimes, discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine, disrupt the supply of Western weapons and increase social tension in Ukrainian society”.
The general staff has called for an international investigation into the explosion.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) said that Russian forces laced the prisoner detention centre with explosives and fired Grad missile launchers next to it to provoke return fire.
If this account is true, this may have been aimed at discrediting Ukrainian use of the HIMARS system, which has proven so devastating to Russian forces.
Ukrainian forces did not return rocket fire that day, the SBU said.
Ukraine’s military intelligence believes the killing of the prisoners of war (POWs) was not ordered by Moscow but carried out by the Wagner Group, a military contractor mercenary unit, in order to cover up the fact that it had embezzled money the Kremlin had paid the group 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 Prigozhin,” Ukraine’s general staff spokesman Alexander Štupun said.
“The organisation and execution of the terrorist attack were not agreed with the leadership of the Ministry of Defence 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,” he said.
“The shelling of the pre-trial detention centre in Olenivka is unacceptable, as are reports of barbaric treatment of prisoners of war by the Russian military,” US ambassador to Kyiv Bridget Brink said in a Twitter post.
Zelenskyy called the killing of the prisoners “a deliberate Russian war crime”.