Ukrainian forces that have launched an offensive in the south are targeting Kherson, a provincial capital that has been under Russian control since the early days of the invasion.
The possible fall of the city would again humiliate Russia after a series of battlefield defeats and other setbacks, further cornering President Vladimir Putin and setting the stage for a possible escalation of the nearly eight-month-old war.
Here’s a look at Kherson’s military and political importance:
Why is the city such a prize?
Kherson, which had a population of 280,000 before the war, is the only regional capital occupied by Russian troops. The city and surrounding areas fell to Moscow in the early days of the conflict as Russian forces quickly pushed their attack north from Crimea, the region illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.
The loss was a major blow to Ukraine due to its location on the Dnieper River, near the mouth of the Black Sea, and its role as a major industrial center. Ukrainian resistance fighters have since challenged Russian forces for control of the city, with sabotage and assassinations of Moscow-appointed officials.
Kherson is also at a point where Ukraine can cut off fresh water from the Dnieper to Crimea. Kiev blocked those vital supplies after annexing the Crimean peninsula, and Putin cited the need to restore them as one of the reasons behind his decision to invade.
Over the summer, Ukrainian forces launched relentless attacks to reclaim parts of the province known as Kherson, one of four regions that Russia illegally annexed last month after mock referendums.
Ukraine has used US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to repeatedly hit a major bridge over the Dnieper River in Kherson and a large dam upstream, which is also used as a transit point. The strikes have forced Russia to rely on pontoons and ferries, also targeted by Ukraine.
The attacks have severed supply links with Kherson and the group of Russian troops on the western bank of the Dnieper, leaving them vulnerable to encirclement. The shortages were exacerbated after an Oct. 8 truck bomb blew up part of the strategic Kerch bridge connecting mainland Russia to Crimea, which has served as a key supply hub for Russian forces in the south.
What was Russia’s response?
Putin blamed the attack on the Kerch Bridge on Ukraine’s military intelligence and responded by ordering a bombardment of energy infrastructure across Ukraine.
He also declared martial law in Kherson and the three other annexed regions in an effort to strengthen Moscow’s hold.
But as Ukrainian forces continue their offensive to the southwest next to the Dnieper, Russian forces have found it increasingly difficult to stop their advance.
General Sergei Surovikin, the newly appointed Russian commander in Ukraine, appeared to be paving the way for a possible withdrawal from Kherson, acknowledging that the situation in the region was “quite difficult” for Moscow and noting that the combat situation there was still evolving. .
Russian authorities, who initially rejected talk of evacuating the city, changed course sharply this week, warning that Kherson could come under massive Ukrainian shelling and encouraging residents to leave – but only to Russian-occupied territories. Officials said 15,000 people had been displaced from an expected 60,000 on Thursday. Officials from the Moscow-appointed regional administration also withdrew, along with other officials.
Moscow has warned that Ukraine could attempt to attack the dam at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant about 50 km upstream, inundating large areas, including the city of Kherson. Ukraine denies that, in turn accusing Russia of planning to blow up the country to cause catastrophic flooding before withdrawing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed the dam was mined by Russia and urged world leaders to make clear to the Kremlin that blowing it up “would mean exactly the same as using weapons of mass destruction.”
What would the loss of Kherson mean for Russia?
A withdrawal from Kherson and other areas on the western bank of the Dnieper would destroy Russian hopes of pushing an offensive westward to Mykolaiv and Odessa to close off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. Such a move would deal a devastating blow to the economy. It would also allow Moscow to potentially build a land corridor to Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, home to a crucial Russian military base.
“The loss of Kherson will turn all those southern Kremlin dreams to dust,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
“Kherson is a key to the entire southern region, allowing Ukraine to target key supply routes for Russian forces. The Russians will try to control it by all means.”
For Ukraine, the capture of Kherson would set the stage for reclaiming the Russian-occupied part of the Zaporizhzhya region and other areas to the south, eventually pushing it back to Crimea.
“Ukraine just has to wait for Kherson to fall into his hands like a ripe apple, because the situation with the supplies for the Russian forces is deteriorating by the day,” Zhdanov said.
Ukraine hopes to quickly double the number of US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers that can hit targets exactly 80 km (50 mi) away, he said.
Regaining control of Kherson would also mean Kiev could once again cut off the water supply to Crimea.
“After the Kherson eviction, the Russians will again have problems with fresh water in Crimea,” Zhdanov added. He said Putin could raise the bar when faced with the loss of Kherson.
“The Russians would be willing to wipe Kherson off the face of the earth instead of giving it to Ukraine,” Zhdanov said.
Destroying the dam to cause major flooding in the mostly flat area would be one way for Moscow to do that.
“The Russians want to show that a Ukrainian counter-offensive will get a harsh response from the Kremlin that has declared the region part of Russia, and it’s scary to even imagine what that response might be,” Zhdanov added.