Ukraine Targets Key Bridge As It Prepares Counteroffensive

From a Wall Street Journal story by Yaroslav Trofimov headlined “Ukraine Targets Key Bridge, Prepares Counteroffensive in South”:

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine struck for the second day in a row the strategic bridge linking Russian-occupied Kherson with other Russian-held areas in southern Ukraine, part of preparations for a counteroffensive there.

Kherson is the only Ukrainian regional capital that Moscow captured in five months of fighting, and the looming battle there would determine whether Ukraine is able to claw back significant territories after its recent setbacks in the eastern Donbas area.

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the Ukraine conflict and roughly three times that number wounded. Ukraine’s casualties, while significant, are “a little less than that,” Mr. Burns said Wednesday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

Ukrainian precision strikes on the Antonivsky bridge and near the Kakhovka dam over the Dnipro river, the only crossings that allow the resupply of the Russian forces in Kherson city and other areas on the western side of the river, have been made possible by recent deliveries of U.S. Himars rocket systems.

As a result of Wednesday’s strikes, truck traffic on the Antonivsky bridge will be suspended while repair works are carried out, said Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed head of the Kherson regional administration.

“The nature of the damage means that Russian tanks and fuel trucks can no longer safely cross there,” said Serhiy Khlan, a member of the Ukrainian regional legislature in Kherson, which is loyal to the Kyiv government. Strikes on Tuesday, he added, targeted not the Antonivsky bridge itself but a Russian base in the Nairi hotel complex at the entrance to the bridge. Truck traffic continues over the Kakhovka dam, some 45 miles to the northeast.

The effective use of Himars to hit Russian ammunition facilities and command centers has allowed Ukraine to blunt the Russian offensive and stabilize the front line in the eastern Donbas area in recent weeks, according to Lt. Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, the country’s top military commander. Russian troops haven’t made any significant gains in Donbas since taking the city of Lysychansk more than two weeks ago.

The U.S. has delivered 12 Himars systems so far. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that the U.S. will deliver four more as part of a new U.S. military assistance package expected to be unveiled later this week.

The U.K., Germany and Norway each pledged three similar M270 multiple-launch rocket systems, with some of them also already delivered.

The latest four Himars would arrive in roughly 10 days, Pentagon officials said at a news briefing Wednesday.

“Additional heavy weapons, new shipments of Himars, will allow the Armed Forces of Ukraine to take under fire control a greater part of Ukrainian territories and to break the logistics of the Russian Federation,” Andriy Yermak, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration, tweeted Wednesday.

A key U.S. condition for Himars deliveries has been a Ukrainian pledge not to use the system to hit targets within Russia proper. This means that Ukraine hasn’t been able to use its new firepower to suppress cross-border Russian artillery and rocket strikes that continue to devastate its second-largest city, Kharkiv, located 20 miles from the frontier. On Wednesday morning, Russian shelling in the Saltivka district of Kharkiv killed three people, including a 13-year-old child, according to Oleh Synehubov, the head of the regional administration.

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska asked for additional defensive weapons in an address to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday morning. She thanked America for its help in providing aid so far but said more was needed. “Russia is destroying our people,” she said, as she showed pictures of children she said were killed and maimed in attacks.

Russia in recent weeks has intensified efforts to potentially annex the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. It has introduced the Russian ruble in the areas it controls there, appointed officials from Russian provinces to oversee local administrations, switched schools to the Russian curriculum, and opened offices to issue Russian passports to local residents.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in charge of temporarily occupied territories, Iryna Vereshchuk, warned Wednesday that obtaining Russian passports by residents of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson or Donbas will be treated as a criminal offense except for a few narrow circumstances, such as when the document is used only to move to government-controlled parts of Ukraine. “Everyone understands that we will be fighting to reclaim our lands. The Russians are afraid of the counteroffensives, which are inevitable,” she wrote on social media.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow’s territorial ambitions—which he said were initially limited to Donbas—have expanded to Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and unspecified other territories after Ukraine rejected a proposed peace agreement drafted at talks in Istanbul in late March.

Ukraine has refused to surrender to Russia the parts of Donbas that it controlled at the time, and Russian forces managed to make only limited advances in the three months of fighting since then.

The delivery of Western long-range weapons to Ukraine can only expand the territory that Russia must control in order to protect itself and the breakaway republics in Donbas, Mr. Lavrov said. “As the West…pumps Ukraine with more and more long-range weapons, such as these Himars—well, it means that the geographical goals will be moved away from the current line even further,” he said in interviews with the state-owned RT news channel.

Responding to Mr. Lavrov, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that by “confessing dreams to grab more Ukrainian land, the Russian Foreign Minister proves that Russia rejects diplomacy and focuses on war and terror. Russians want blood, not talks.”

Some of the Ukrainian regions from which Russian forces withdrew in April include Sumy and Chernihiv that directly border on Russia. Low-intensity clashes and mortar-fire exchanges have continued along these frontiers since then. Russian forces made no advances outside of Donbas since April, and lost ground in several areas, particularly between Kharkiv and the Russian border.

While the major industrial city of Zaporizhzhia and large parts of that region remain under Kyiv’s control, almost all of Kherson region was seized by Russia in the initial weeks of the war. Controlling parts of Kherson on the western side of the Dnipro region, including Kherson city, is of strategic importance for Russia as troops there threaten the cities of Mykolaiv and potentially Odessa further west. This foothold, however, is vulnerable because it depends on the two crossings that are now targeted by Ukrainian strikes for resupply.

In his second visit to the war theater this week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoiguflew to the command center of Russia’s armed forces Group West, led by Lt. Gen. Andrey Sychevoy, to be briefed on war plans in that sector of Ukraine, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday. Mr. Shoigu visited the armed forces Group East on Monday, instructing it to focus on destroying Western-provided Himars and artillery systems.

Russia hasn’t given up on plans to seize Odessa and eventually march all the way back to Kyiv, Ukrainian officials say. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on his visit to Tehran on Tuesday that Russia withdrew from Kyiv and other parts of the country’s north in April only because it had reached a draft peace agreement with Ukraine at diplomatic talks in Turkey.

“Kyiv authorities refused to follow these agreements, which have been de facto reached,” Mr. Putin said. Ukrainian officials deny any deal had been agreed in Turkey and say Russian forces had to withdraw from Kyiv at the time because they had suffered catastrophic losses.

Asked about the prospects of talks with Ukraine, Mr. Lavrov said in the RT interview: “They make no sense in today’s circumstances.”

Mr. Putin also said that he discussed efforts to restart Ukrainian grain exports by sea with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at their meeting in Iran.

Russia’s invasion and subsequent blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports severely disrupted grain exports by Ukraine, one of the world’s largest wheat producers, which many developing nations in particular depend on for their food supplies.

“From the start we said that this should be part of a package, specifically, that we will cooperate in exporting Ukrainian grain, but we are proceeding based on a scenario where all restrictions related to the potential export of Russian grain will be lifted,” he said.

He said that already limits on Russian fertilizer exports have largely been lifted and that he hopes grain is next. “We are ready, right now, we have an export potential of 30 million tons of grain, and based on the current year’s results, there will be 50,” Mr. Putin said, according to a readout by the Kremlin of his comments to the press.

Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign-affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022. He joined the Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East and Singapore-based Asia correspondent, as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as Dubai-based columnist on the greater Middle East. He is the author of two books, Faith at War (2005) and Siege of Mecca (2007).

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