The Assault on Kherson – part 2 of the First Phase of the War discussion

This is the second in a series of extended posts examining the First Phase of this war. The first post is here: The Assault on Kiev – part 1 of the discussion on the First Phase of the War | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org)

The Fight over Kherson: The other dramatic and threatening advance early in the war was out of Crimea and onto Kherson. The advance, depending on how it developed could have threatened to cut off the entire eastern Ukraine from western Ukraine and could have threatened Odessa. It appears to have also been under-resourced. 

The Russian forces advance rapidly out of Crimea and took Kherson by the evening of the first day of the war, 24 February. They secured the Antonovskii bridge and raised their flag in Kherson. This size of this force was probably not much, maybe a single BTG (Battalion Tactical Group) or much less thrown out without much support.

It was rolled back the next morning by the Ukrainian forces in the area and they recaptured the bridge. Later that day, the Russians reseized the bridge, but come the next day, Ukraine still held the city.

Operations against Kherson now dragged out, with them not taking Kherson until 2 March, some six days after they first took it. Almost certainly they had moved up additional forces in the interim to deal with Ukrainian defenders, who may not have been properly reinforced.

A separate column had advanced and attacked Melitopol, to the northeast of Crimea, on 25 February taking it by 1 March. This city was the first major city that the Russian Army had taken (they took Kherson the following day).

These were now the two largest cities taken from Ukraine, and the only two. Kherson had a pre-war population of 283,649 and Melitopol had 150,768 people (according to the 2021 population estimate). Russia was certainly looking like they were doing what they intended to do in this area.

Even before taking Kherson they expanded their operations, advancing beyond to Mykolaiv starting a battle on the evening of 26 February with a column of reportedly 12 tanks. The entered the outskirts of the city, but driven back. Russian reinforcements advanced from Kherson on 28th and launched another attack. There were several subsequent attacks over the next few days and fighting the outskirts of the city, but clearly Russia did not have the forces in place to take Mykolaiv. This was the second sign the Russian offensive actually did not have a lot of “umpf” (the failure to break into Kiev in the first few days was the first sign).

The Russians then continued to advance past Mykolaiv (pop. 476,101), up the Southern Bug River to Nova Odessa (pop. 11,690), also not taking that, and then continued up the Southern Bug to Voznesensk (34,050), which they also did not take. There was a Russian armored column that was hit outside the city on March, meaning that they were just taking Kherson while the head of the column was 88 miles away (142 kilometers) fighting at Voznesensk. Lots of blitz here, but one question if they had enough weight to these forces conduct krieg. The attacking force was reportedly the Russian 126th Coastal Defense Brigade of 400 men and 43 vehicles. So, basically a large reinforced company flung 90 miles to the NW of Kherson.

This advance seems like a pointless probe into nowhere, operating under what appears to be the now proven false assumption that somehow or the other the Ukrainians were going to collapse the moment they saw Russian armor columns.

Mykolaiv is a port, even though it is a way up the river. It is the main shipbuilding center on the Black Sea. The largest warship in the Ukrainian navy and their only frigate, the Hetman Sahaidachny (3,150 tons) was undergoing a major refit there. It was scuttled probably around 28 February 2022. Not sure why they did that, as they ended up controlling Mykolaiv. 

Now, Russian was stretched out across around 90 miles from Kherson to  Mykolaiv to Nova Odesa to Voznesensk. Needless to say, this was an untenable position that they would soon to be pushed back from or withdraw from.

The Ukrainian holding of Mykolaiv was significant. Without control of that, any further operations up the Southern Bug were pointless. Without Mykolaiv, they could not threaten to cut off eastern Ukraine and could not threaten to take Odessa. Mykolaiv is the location of the bridges crossing the Southern Bug on the road to Odessa. It was kind of critical for Ukraine to hold this city of around a half million people, which they apparently did with a mix of forces (elements of the 59th Motorized Brigade, 90th Air Assault Brigade, 36th Naval Infantry Brigade and militia). The Russian forces that advanced appeared to be of limited strength, which was becoming a theme throughout this campaign. It was a force large enough to overcome the hastily organized defenders of Kherson, but not large enough to take any other major population centers. They had enough to send a column to Melitopol, to advance after that to Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, to push up to Mykolaiv and to push beyond all the way to Voznesensk. By the results, it appears that this was a force that came out of Crimea of maybe 3 or 4 BTGs. It may have been more, but it could not have been much more. This really was not a lot for the amount of area they were taking and then had to cover. They then appear to have run out steam, which is not surprising considering.

Meanwhile, Russian forces occupied the areas between Melitopol and Kherson, including taking the Zaporozhzhia Nuclear Power plant. They then did not appear to advance further north, probably because of a lack of strength. This left the Ukrainian cities of Mykolaiv (pop. 476,101) and Zaporizhzhiya (pop. 722,713) to their north still securely in Ukrainian hands. It did create a large occupied area to the north of Crimea that secured the water supply for the peninsula. To their west, along the Sea of Azov, was the Ukrainian city of Mariupol (pop. 431,859), which became the next big objective for the forces operating in the south, and the subject of my next post on this subject.

There does appear to have been a few things wrong with Russian operations. First, the initial assault on Kherson was conducted with a very limited force. They obviously reinforced that force, correcting the problem and took Kherson six days later. But, overall, it does not look like the forces that came out of Crimea were all that significant size wise. I have seen no estimates of their force strength for this operation, but would not be surprised if it was a low as a half-dozen BTGs. They were basically able to grab one undefended city, and lightly defended nuclear power plant, one lightly defended city, and a lot of undefended territory in between. They were not able to take anything that was defended in strength.

And then there is the question of where and what the Ukrainian Army was doing. In the process of defending Kiev, Mariupol, Kharkov, Donetsk and Lugansk, did they leave this area under-resourced? Did they even bother to defend the route out of the Crimea, where there are only three narrow peninsulas leading the rest of Ukraine. It does not appear that they did that at all. That a weak column could run all the way from Crimea to Kherson on the first day indicates that there was no opposition in between. This kind of surprises me.

It also does not appear that they had a significant force initially defending Kherson. They gathered something together in the area that took it back that same day, but one might guess that the Russian forces hanging onto Kherson initially were a company-sized force or less. They fact that the Russians were quickly able to retake it, across a bridge and a large river indicates that there was not a lot Ukrainians defending there to start with (and apparently even less Russians initially). It just seems like a lot of progress was made in this area with very limited Russian forces against what was even more limited Ukrainian opposition. This is kind of surprising, because the Ukrainians probably should have been prepared for an advance out of Crimea. 

Anyhow, weird sideshow of an operation that captured almost the entire Kherson Province from Ukraine in a little over a week. This ended up becoming the most successful Russian operation of the first phase of the war.

I stop here today. Next is the fight over Mariupol.

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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2 Comments

  1. Perhaps the Ukrainians themselves concluded that spreading themselves thin in order adequately to defend the entire country would simply leave Kyiv more vulnerable, without necessarily stopping the advance in the south. After all, nobody knew until the fighting actually began how inept would be the Russian conduct of the war in the northeast.

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