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Ukrainian attacks suggest offensive may be underway in the south

Russian forces raised a Soviet-era flag in Kherson after capturing the southern Ukrainian city early in the current war. Ukraine carried out new attacks in the Kherson region on Monday, raising the possibility that it is launching a counteroffensive. This photo was taken on May 20 at the World War II memorial in Kherson.
A replica of the Soviet Banner of Victory flies by a WWII memorial in the city of Kherson on May 20, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. - Authorities in the Moscow-controlled Ukrainian region of Kherson announced on May 23 the introduction of the ruble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia. The region's capital Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russian forces after the start of Moscow's military operation in Ukraine on February 24. (Photo by Andrey BORODULIN / AFP) (Photo by ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine has been talking for weeks about a possible counteroffensive against Russian forces in and around the southern city of Kherson. Without the Ukrainian government saying so explicitly, a new round of Ukrainian military attacks on Monday suggested such a push may now be underway.

"Anyone want to know what our plans are?" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Monday night address. "You won't hear specifics from any truly responsible person. Because this is war. But the occupiers should know: we will oust them to the border."

In Washington, U.S. officials said Ukraine's intent was not yet clear. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters that "the Ukrainians have told us what you're seeing in open-source media, that they have started an offensive of some sort. We just don't know the level." The official said the scale of the operation would likely become clearer in the next day or two.

In Russia, the Defense Ministry said that Ukrainian forces tried to advance in three separate directions in southern Ukraine, but were beaten back and "suffered heavy losses."

The Ukraine media described the military moves as a significant offensive.

"Ukrainian Counteroffensive Underway in the Kherson Region," the Kyiv Post said in its top story. The newspaper cited reports of frequent explosions in and around Kherson throughout the day.

The Kyiv Independentoffered a similar take, quoting military spokesperson Natalia Humeniuk saying Ukraine's armed forces attacked Monday "in many directions in the south of Ukraine."

Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to President Zelenskyy, also suggested an operation was underway in a tweet laced with sarcasm:

In the past, Russia has described its occasional retreats under Ukrainian military pressure as "gestures of goodwill."

Ukrainian troops on the move toward the front

NPR's Frank Langfitt was near the front Monday in the Mykolaiv region, about 30 miles northwest of Kherson, when it became clear Ukrainian troops were raising the heat on the Russians.

When he arrived in a village to speak with infantry, he learned they had been sent toward the front. During an interview with a village leader, the pace of outgoing artillery picked up, as did the number of tanks and armored personnel carriers traveling along the road. In addition, his press escort urged him to wrap the interview and leave the village for his own safety.

In exchanges with soldiers, Langfitt said there was no consensus on exactly what was happening. When he asked one if this was the beginning of the counteroffensive, the Ukrainian said, "I hope so." Another called Monday's military moves "abstract," while a third said he believed this was the beginning of the long-promised push to Kherson.

In Washington, a U.S. official said Ukraine has been "shaping" the battlefield in the south for weeks, hitting Russian command centers, troop concentrations and weapons depots — all aided by U.S. and NATO weaponry. Such moves are often a prelude to a counteroffensive.

Kherson could test Ukraine's ability for a counteroffensive

Russia captured Kherson in early March, just a week into the war. It's one of the few sizeable cities the Russians have taken, and unlike the others, the Russians captured Kherson with little Ukrainian resistance.

As a result, the city has suffered less damage in than other Ukrainian cities in the east and the south. Russia has now occupied the city for nearly six months. Information on conditions in Kherson is hard to come by, though reports have surfaced of targeted Ukrainian attacks on Russian officials and soldiers, as well as Ukrainians who are collaborating with the Russians.

After attacking from several directions at the start of the war on Feb. 24, Russia has concentrated most of its firepower in the east of the country, facing stiff resistance from Ukraine.

As fighting in the east has essentially turned into a stalemate, Ukraine has steadily been building up its positions in the south, and Ukrainian officials have talked openly about the possibility of a counteroffensive.

Despite such discussions, Ukraine has not launched any major operations, and has made only small, sporadic military gains.

But now, armed with longer range U.S. artillery, Ukraine has been hitting far behind Russian lines, something it couldn't do earlier in the war. The Ukrainians also say they've damaged bridges that cross the Dnipro River, which could make it extremely difficult for Russia to resupply its forces in Kherson.

The city and the surrounding areas are the only places Russia controls to the west of the Dnipro River, which bisects the country as it travels north to south.

While Ukraine has put up a much tougher fight than most anyone expected, it has largely concentrated on defensive measures to halt, or at least limit, the Russian advances.

President Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials say they have no intention of ceding territory to Russia, which now controls about 20% of Ukraine's land.

Yet Ukraine has not yet demonstrated that it can retake large chunks of territory seized by Russia. A major Ukrainian counteroffensive in and around Kherson would be a major test.

Kherson, which had a pre-war population of just under 300,000, is the capital of the Kherson Oblast, or region, an area roughly the size of the state of Maryland.

NPR's Tom Bowman contributed to this report from Washington, D.C., and Frank Langfitt contributed from Lymany, Ukraine. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.