Ukrainian armed forces kept the spearhead of Russian forces engaged in the eastern city of Severodonetsk while launching successful counterattacks in the north and south during the 15th week of the war.
The southern counteroffensive began on May 28 and by June 2, Kherson Oblast military administration head Hennadiy Lahuta reported that Ukrainian forces had liberated 20 villages.
In some areas, Ukrainian forces had managed to push the Russian lines of defence back about 25km (15 miles). For example, whereas the Russians were almost on the outskirts of Mykolaiv, they are now reportedly halfway between Mykolaiv and the city of Kherson. Increased Russian attacks have failed to win these areas back.
Ukraine’s navy also said on Facebook that its use of anti-ship missiles has forced Russian ships to a distance of 100km (62 miles) from land and prompted Russia to place Bal and Bastion anti-ship missile batteries on Crimea.
Ukraine says it has sunk 13 Russian ships and boats of various types. “We have deprived the Russian Black Sea Fleet of complete control over the northwest part of the Black Sea, which has turned into the ‘grey zone’,” the navy announced on Facebook.
Russian military sources on June 5 reported that Ukraine had launched a new counteroffensive in the northern Kharkiv region. This is where Ukraine successfully pushed Russian forces back to within a few kilometres of the Russian border in May and secured the city of Kharkiv.
The heart of the struggle was the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukrainian and Russian forces appear to have gone back and forth. Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu claimed on Telegram that his forces have captured the entire residential part of the city and continue to fight for the industrial area.
Russia launched the battle for Severodonetsk on May 25. Given that the city is only about 25 streets deep from east to west, and Russia has committed the flower of its forces there – 10,000 men backed by relentless artillery, mortars and air power – Ukrainian forces appear to have held out admirably.
Despite Russia’s tenfold superiority in artillery there, as reported by the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Kiril Budanov, Russia has failed to surround Severodonetsk, take neighbouring Lysychansk or ford the Siverski Donets river, which lies between them.
Ukraine has proven the more versatile and resilient combatant, says the Institute for the Study of War.
“The Russian military has concentrated all of its available resources on this single battle to make only modest gains. The Ukrainian military contrarily retains the flexibility and confidence to not only conduct localised counterattacks elsewhere in Ukraine (such as north of Kherson) but conduct effective counterattacks into the teeth of Russian assaults in Severodonetsk,” it said in its June 4 assessment.
Severodonetsk has symbolic, not strategic, value say analysts, as its occupation would allow Russia to claim it has taken Ukraine’s easternmost Luhansk province.
“Russia’s drive in Luhansk is the desperate gamble of a dictator staking the last of the offensive combat power he can scrape together in hopes of breaking his enemies’ will to continue the fight,” wrote Frederick W Kagan, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, referring to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. “And let him claim that he’s taken all of Luhansk Oblast … There are no Russian large reserves coming behind this force to carry its successes forward.”
Realities of Russian occupation
What does Russia intend to do with Luhansk and Donetsk if it does conquer them? The realities in Kherson Oblast, which fell on March 2, provide clues.
First, Russian forces seek to consolidate their occupation through intimidation. Al Jazeera spoke with a Kherson schoolteacher who witnessed the occupation.
“In the early days of the Russian occupation … people started going out with Ukrainian flags protesting that Kherson belongs to Ukraine. In the beginning, [the Russians] didn’t bother them. After about two weeks, they started to tear-gas them and to frighten them,” said Marina, who fled to Odesa in late April and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect family members who are still in Kherson.
“They might stop you on the street to check your phone. They check your music and photos. If you listen to Ukrainian music, it’s a problem. They check your chats on Viber, Facebook and so on. They don’t want to see you giving out information about what the Russians are doing,” she said.
Many Ukrainians have disappeared following such checks, according to Ukraine’s ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova.
“From the first days of the occupation, messages with photos and calls for help in finding missing parents, wives, children, friends began to appear massively on social networks,” she said on social media.
There is concern that some abductees will be drafted into the Russian army, as is reportedly happening in Crimea.
“They’re terrorising people, telling them if the Ukrainians counterattack, no one will be left alive,” said Pantelis Boubouras, who owns a construction business in Odesa and is Greece’s honorary consul in Kherson.
“They’re doing this to lower Ukrainian morale, but they will actually do it. There are Chechens, there are drug abusers, and there are heavy drinkers among the Russians … Day by day, the Russian army’s behaviour is growing worse. I am a Russophile, but I believe they will kill civilians,” he told Al Jazeera.
Russian occupiers in Kherson have shown signs of increasing nervousness. Military and civil leaders are reported to be moving around with heavy security details.
Ukraine’s southern operational command says Russian troops have orders to shoot civilians on sight and destroy vehicles at checkpoints on suspicion that they are part of a resistance to the Russian occupation.
“We believe the Russians are preparing a stronger attack on Mykolaiv, and if they manage that they’ll attack Odesa and try to take the whole coastline,” said Boubouras. “We’ve seen that there are Russian checkpoints everywhere [in Kherson]. They’re trying to make sure that Ukrainian fighters don’t infiltrate the local population and attack them from the rear when they launch their offensive.”
That is the view of the Russian strategy outlined by Oleksiy Gromov, deputy commander of the main operations department of the Ukrainian general staff: to conquer the entire Ukrainian littoral, intercept foreign military aid and destroy Ukraine’s economic infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Russia appears to be preparing to assimilate and annex Kherson. Ukraine’s military intelligence says Russia is switching to the Russian school curriculum there and is handing out Russian SIM cards to convert Ukrainian mobile phones to the Russian network.
Reports on Telegram say Zaporizhia has been switched to Moscow time and Russian radio stations are being set up. As of May 25, Russian passports were being issued in replacement of Ukrainian ones in Kherson.
Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, said Russia is beginning to supplant business owners.
“The occupiers are starting their agricultural business in the territories of the south … We have information that representatives of the Caucasus region are being relocated to the Kherson region for this purpose,” she said.
Reported confiscations of business properties appear to be serving this purpose.
“A wheat merchant I know had $1.5m of wheat. They took it,” said Bouburas. “Another person was offered 30 percent of his property. He complained, so they took all of it.”
Denisova reported that unclaimed real estate in Kherson is being confiscated and owners have been asked to submit deeds of title. The implication is that those who have fled will forfeit their property. She also reported that vehicles belonging to people who were killed or have fled were being rounded up for auction.
Russia embarked on a census of Kherson in mid-May. This month, residents were being polled through their cell phones, Ukraine’s military intelligence says. They received questions including: “How do you feel about the special military operation in Ukraine? How do you feel about Vladimir Putin?”
This suggests that Russian authorities are building a political profile of the population.
Another question suggests the options being considered by Russian authorities: “In your opinion, should Kherson be a part of the Russian Federation or follow the path of the LPR / DPR, or become a part of the Republic of Crimea?”
The LPR and DPR, the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, are breakaway regions of Ukraine. Russia recognised them as independent states in February 2014, and Russia-backed separatists have been at war with the government of Ukraine since May that year, when they held referenda to declare self-rule.
Crimea declared itself an independent republic in March 2014 and was immediately absorbed by Russia. Ukraine’s defence intelligence suspects the polling of Kherson residents may be part of preparations for a self-rule referendum there.
Most of the international community recognises Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea as part of Ukraine, but that has not stopped Russia.
“The [Russians] installed a pro-Russian mayor [in Kherson], who is applying pressure to hold a referendum,” said Boubouras. “It is going to happen with a gun to people’s head, as in Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea.”