In perhaps the most impressive Russian feat of arms in the current war, in the first week the Russian Army invading from Crimea got across the mighty Dnieper River and captured the south-central Ukrainian regional capital of Kherson on March 2, 2022,
This is the only important city they have secured west of the Dnieper. Controlling both banks of the lower Dnieper allows Russia to cut off river traffic.
Further, Kherson is about 150 miles by road from the famous Ukrainian port city of Odessa.
Although the Russian push toward Mykolaiv and Odessa, Ukraine’s last main links to the sea, long ago stalled, Russia’s continued possession of a foothold across the Dnieper would allow it to credibly threaten to drive on Odessa in a future war after it has rebuilt its military strength.
So, it’s hard to imagine the Ukrainians agreeing to a ceasefire leaving the Russians on the west bank of the Dnieper without trying to push the Russians back across the river.
Hence, for about a month or so the Ukrainians have been talking up their upcoming offensive to retake Kherson. This hasn’t exactly gone through the formality of taking place yet, but the Ukrainians have lately been punching holes with their new long-distance rockets in the surprisingly few bridges across the lower Dnieper, in the hope of panicking the Russians troops in Kherson into retreating to the east side of the Dnieper. (The Ukrainians don’t want to completely demolish the bridges because they want to use them after retaking Kherson.)
Fighting on the offensive is tougher than on the defensive, especially without air superiority. So far the Ukrainians haven’t shown all that much evidence of what their offensive capabilities might be.
Kherson could serve as a test of strength.
If the Ukrainians can’t take Kherson, they likely can’t retake much of the land held by the Russians.
If they retake Kherson only after a protracted, exhausting fight and don’t have anything left to get across the Dnieper, then a ceasefire might be in the offing.
If the Ukrainians retake Kherson with enough left over to cross the Dnieper in force, the war could go into reverse motion.
Or it could be that the far from secret Kherson offensive is intended as a distraction for something else the Ukrainians have up their sleeve.
But in an age of constant satellite and drone surveillance, can anybody actually pull off feints and occluded offensives anymore? We haven’t seen a lot of brilliant stratagems in this war yet. That may have less to do with the inadequacies of the leadership than with technological evolution of surveillance leading to an era in which battles turn into tests of strength that both sides can see coming a long way off.